Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Jagged Little Pill is a twist on the jukebox musical. All but two of its songs were written and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette prior to mounting the show–including all twelve of the songs on Morissette's 1995 smash hit album from which the show gets its name. It is not a show about Morissette, a la Tina or Jersey Boys, but not a story fabricated apart from the show with hit songs shoehorned in, a la Mamma Mia! or the current Broadway hit & Juliet. The notion for Jagged Little Pill came from theatre composer and orchestrator Tom Kitt, who approached Morissette about adapting the album into a musical drawing on the thematic content that runs through its twelve songs. That theme could be summarized as a meld of female rage against male dominance, family dysfunction, and interpersonal honesty. Some of the songs suggest characters, especially "Mary Jane," which became the name of the musical's central character. The album was topical when released in 1995, but its themes remain of deep concern thirty-eight years later, more openly discussed today than when Morissette first recorded it.
Oscar-winning screenwriter and, thanks to Jagged Little Pill, Tony-winning musical bookwriter Diablo Cody joined the project to create a narrative that would bring its themes, through book and songs, to the surface. She created the upper middle-class Healy family nestled in cushy suburban Connecticut, first seen shortly before Christmas. Mary Jane, fortyish, is a full-time mom whose competitive instincts are channeled into her children's accomplishments. Mary Jane is also a drug addict, hooked on pain pills that had been prescribed ten months before, after a car accident and a couple of surgeries. Through the clever guise of Mary Jane composing the family's annual Christmas letter ("dear friends and family"), we hear Mary Jane's carefully groomed illusions about her family, while we see for ourselves how far those are from the truth.
In addition to describing her own remarkable recovery from her surgeries through natural-healing processes, Mary Jane describes with pride her husband Steve's ascension to partner in his law firm, while we see that he is a workaholic. Beautiful sixteen-year-old Frankie, their adopted "little princess," is making out with her lesbian best friend Jo and harbors great anger against her parents for not acknowledging the fact that she is Black, living in an excessively white community. Eighteen-year-old Nick, Mary Jane's pride and joy, just gained early admission into Harvard. He is Mary Jane's perfect son, though we see his anxiety over living up to her expectations and the effect of her restraining him from normal teenage activities like going to parties.
Once we know the lay of the land, we are not surprised to see Mary Jane's addiction and denial worsen, Steve's frustration with his marriage deepen as he escapes into work and online porn, Frankie's anger toward her parents become more strident, and her relationship with Jo be tested when a cute boy at school shows an interest in her. We see Nick increasingly anxious, especially after becoming the sole witness to his best friend, the heavily privileged Andrew, raping their mutual friend Bella, who had passed out from too much drinking at one of those parties Mary Jane tried to keep Nick from attending. Clearly, these are not the topics one features in the annual Christmas letter.
The songs fit perfectly into the narrative that emerges from this opening premise, so much that they might have been written for the show, rather than having inspired it. Morissette wrote all of the lyrics, which are laden with biting honesty and bracing images. The music for most of the songs was co-composed with Glen Ballard. The melodic score has a rock edge, with a few songs tilting toward folk. Tom Kitt, having instigated the project, orchestrated and created the arrangements for the score, producing a sound that feels altogether fitting on a Broadway stage without severing its rock and roll roots.
Diane Paulus directs the show, bringing a sharp, crisp edge to the book scenes, which include an abundance of scathing humor along with poignant confessions and severe confrontations. The musical element always feels present as an undercurrent, so that book scenes seamlessly morph into songs and spectacular choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who can not only bring the ensemble through highly energized dance sequences but can also choreograph an entire church with the pews becoming part of the dance. The visualization of a drug overdose through the wrenching movement of two performers (the actor inhabiting the part and her dance-ensemble doppelganger), along with Justin Townsend's brilliant lighting design, is heart-stopping.
Heidi Blickenstaff played Mary Jane on Broadway when Jagged Little Pill reopened after the COVID shutdown and has continued in this central role for the tour. She is magnificent, with a powerful, beautiful voice, ace delivery of Mary Jane's barbed humor, and a subtle conveyance of the character's underlying fragility and suppressed anger. Blickenstaff closes the first act with a searing delivery of "Forgiven" that reveals the tumult of feelings roiling within Mary Jane. She is at the center, surrounded by excellent performers. Chris Hock conveys Steve's feeling of being lost in the fury of his wife's withdrawal, and clueless as to his own contribution to their impasse. Lauren Chanel is wonderful as Frankie, delivering righteous anger against her parents, coming to a head in "Unprodigal Daughter," while oblivious to the hurt she inflicts upon Jo.
Dillon Klena plays Nick (his brother, Derek Klena originated the role on Broadway), conveying the young man's sensitive nature offset by nervous energy, his deep fear of disappointing his parents expressed with simmering anger in "Perfect." As Jo, Jade McLeod gets to deliver some of the best lines and without doubt the best musical moment with a killer rendition of "You Oughta Know," railing against Frankie's betrayal of her trust. Allison Sheppard is excellent as Bella, at first withdrawn after the assault, then showing a gathering of strength and confidence to be able to stand up for herself. Rishi Golani as Phoenix and Jordan Quisno as Andrew give strong performances in roles that serve as catalysts for changing the lives of Frankie, Jo, Nick and Bella. Everyone brings terrific voices to the production.
Riccardo Hernandez's set design is simple and streamlined, with a screen that descends or rises to reveal or conceal the band, set upon a raised platform. In tandem with Lucy MacKinnon's video design, we are able to clearly see each location, not how they might appear to the casual observer, but as they appear to the character inhabiting their scene. Emily Rebholz's costume designs capture precisely what we would expect each of these characters to wear.
The one flaw in the entire production is in sound delivery. The sound is clearly audible during book scenes and in songs for up to three performers, but when the ensemble joins in, which is the case in most songs, it seems that the band's volume increases as well and it becomes extremely difficult to make out the lyrics. The much younger family member who accompanied me–and loved the show–reported the same difficulty. To some degree this is an ongoing issue at the cavernous Orpheum, but to whatever extent sound design can address the problem would be for the good. Fortunately, a clear sense of where the narrative is heading and the emotional tenor of the songs makes it possible to know what the company is singing about, even without knowing precisely what they are saying.
A rally held in defense of a rape victim which extends the demands to include victims of any gender and race, a couples counseling session that goes off the rails, the unwitting harm done by white people who insist "I don't see color," and a great many incisive lines and conversations bear testimony to the relevance of Jagged Little Pill and its decades-old songs. The staging, design and performances are of the highest caliber, ensuring that those messages hit their mark, while also providing an evening of great entertainment.
Jagged Little Pill runs through August 13, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit hennepintheatretrust.org or call 612-339-7007. For information on the tour, visit www.jaggedlittlepill.com/tour.
Book: Diablo Cody; Lyrics: Alanis Morissette; Lyrics: Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard; Additional Music: Michael Farrell & Guy Sigsworth; Director: Diane Paulus; Movement Director and Choreographer: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Justin Townsend; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Video Design: Lucy Mackinnon; Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: J. Jared Jana; Music Supervisor, Orchestrator and Arranger: Tom Kitt; Music Director/Conductor: Matt Doebler: Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons; Casting: C12 Casting, Jillian Cimini; Production Supervising Stage Manager: Ira Mont; Production Stage Manager: Veronica Aglow.
Cast: Lee H. Alexander (Doctor/ensemble), Heidi Blickenstaff (Mary Jane Healy), Delaney Brown (Denise/ensemble), Justin Scott Brown (ensemble), Lauren Chanel (Frankie Healy), Rishi Golani (Phoenix/ensemble), Chris Hoch (Steve Healy), Dillon Klena (Nick Healy), Cydney Kutcipal (ensemble), Jade McLeod (Jo), Jordan Quisno (Andrew/ensemble), Allison Sheppard (Bella), Carmella Taitt (Barista/ensemble), Daniel Thimm (Drug Dealer/ensemble), Jena VanElslander (Courtney/ ensemble), Bligh Voth (Jill/Teacher/ensemble), Elaine Watson (Pharmacist/Therapist/ ensemble).