Regional Reviews: Greater New York State
Jagged Little PillNational Tour
So screams the posters hawking the touring production of Alanis Morissette (music and lyrics), Diablo Cody (book), and Glen Ballard's (music) Jagged Little Pill, which opened this week at Proctors Theater in Schenectady. Unfortunately, some of what the audience feels in this first national tour might be more of a headache than a catharsis, because Jagged Little Pill is inarguably a musical written and performed ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
It's a musical about the fentanyl crisis. It's also a musical about a young woman who is sexually assaulted and the Harvard-bound golden boy who witnesses the crime. What's more, it's a musical about a Black girl struggling to find her identity in the white family she was adopted into. Oh, and it's also a musical about wealthy suburbanites in a sexless marriage. And we're not done yet: it's also a musical about a love triangle between a boy, a girl, and the girl's non-binary best friend.
Overwhelmed yet? Then you'd best brace yourself before curtain because there are still other narrative threads to follow in this overpacked play. While the typical American musical can generally withstand one storyline with one or two subplots, Jagged Little Pill is overstuffed with more journeys than one audience member can reasonably be asked to travel in two-and-a-half hours. The resulting hodgepodge of angst, trauma, conflict, and (some, though not much) resolution comes across more as a big-budget after-school special than the serious modern musical it strives to be. And while it is certainly the best after-school special I've seen in a long time, a great musical it is not.
Yet there is much to like on stage this week in Schenectady. Much of what saves Jagged Little Pill from a total teenage artistic meltdown is the pulsating heart of Heidi Blickenstaff's performance as MJ, the pill-popping, conflict-averse, sexually unfulfilled wife and mother at the center of this expansive dramatic universe. Suffering though a failed marriage, an opioid addiction, and unresolved trauma from sexual assault, MJ rivals the vocal and acting demands of Madame Rose or Dolly Levi. Blickenstaff, a tireless Broadway hoofer for two decades whose "A Way Back to Then" from [title of show] remains one of this reviewer's all-time favorite moments in a theater, is nothing short of showstopping in Jagged Little Pill. Her powerful belt, impeccable comic timing, and immeasurable pathos steer the show away from its hackneyed oversimplifications toward a depth of feeling that brings tears to the eyes. Blickenstaff's performance is utterly unmissable and alone worth the price of a ticket.
The rest of the cast deliver admirably, especially understudy Jordan Leigh McCaskill, on for Frankie, the Black girl adopted into MJ's Caucasian family. In the hands of a less skillful actor, Frankie would be whiny and pedestrian, but McCaskill rounds her into a nuanced teenager who breaks your heart instead of grating on your patience. Rishi Golani, in the small role of Frankie's love interest Phoenix, croons the '90s rock score with an incomparable tenor. The ensemble, charged by choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with performing more somersaults than I've ever seen in a Broadway musical, energetically maintains the visual frenzy that director Diane Paulus demands.
But this frenzy–which served Paulus so well in her 2008 revival of Hair–is ultimately responsible for Jagged Little Pill's undoing. Whereas the plotless kaleidoscope of Hair gained focus and structure through Paulus's penchant for onstage mayhem, Jagged Little Pill's seemingly infinite plots get further muddied by an overabundant cacophony. The show delivers more as a rock concert than a musical, with scant furniture appearing under lighting trusses and huge LED screens. And while this approach would seem to serve a '90s rock album, the stakes of the innumerable storylines are ultimately muted under the visual and aural screaming of the production. Cody's inexperience as a musical bookwriter is tattooed across the production; the rush to wrap up all the storylines in the last few minutes is clumsy and asks too much of the already overtaxed cast (who, to their credit, rise to the unfair tasks asked of them).
That said, this kind of after-school special might just be what the touring house market needs right now. The audience in Schenectady–the heart of small-town upstate New York–responded rapturously on Tuesday night, and I saw groups of teenagers holding each other close after the show. It's ironic–in an Alanis Morissette "that's-not-actually-what-ironic-means" way–that the quintessential millennial album resonates more on stage with Gen Zers than with its native audience. By the time the act-two showstopper "You Oughta Know" rolled around, I rolled my eyes at its predictable placement and staging. But the younger generation–much as I did in 1996 when I was 14–pumped their fists in impassioned agreement.
Jagged Little Pill runs through runs through May 7, 2023, at Proctors Theatre, 432 State Street, Schenectady NY. Tickets range from $25.50 - 85.50. For tickets and information, please visit www.proctors.org or the box office. For more information on the tour, please visit jaggedlittlepill.com/tour/.