Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Jagged Little Pill
Twenty-three years after the album was released, director Diane Paulus and bookwriter Diablo Cody turned those songs, plus others from Morissette's catalog, into a musical. With a superb cast, the national tour of Jagged Little Pill not only pays homage to the iconic album by Morissette but also takes the audience on a gripping and emotionally charged journey through the complexities of modern life.
The plot follows the Healy family over the course of a year as they navigate through their daily lives. Father Steve has a successful career while mother Mary Jane tries to keep the household in order. Their two teenage children have found recent success, with son Nick having been accepted to Harvard and daughter Frankie leading social change at her school. But underneath their cheery exterior is a web of secrets along with inner struggles, addiction, and abuse as the entire family faces societal pressures and the harsh realities of the world we live in.
To say much more would ruin the twists and turns in Cody's poignant and incisive story, which tackles issues of identity, privilege, the quest for authenticity, and the power one finds in making their own choices. The book weaves together Morissette's lyrics seamlessly, creating a compelling story that resonates with the challenges faced by contemporary families.
The score, featuring hits like "Ironic," "You Outta Know," "Hand in My Pocket," and "You Learn," has new arrangements by Tom Kitt that add a dose of theatricality to the rock sound while keeping the emotional impact intact and fitting seamlessly into the narrative. The live band, under Matt Doebler's music direction, infuses the production with energy and passion. While the plot, music, and sleek production elements may seem reminiscent of another modern musical that also focuses on fractured family dynamics, Next to Normal, which had music by Kitt, here the themes are more profound and less internal as they confront larger current societal issues head-on. The musical tackles topics such as sexual assault, racial and gender identity, and the pressure to conform. Morissette's lyrics, written decades ago, still remain incredibly relevant today.
Paulus' direction has a perfect blend of energy, heart, and raw emotion, which brings a realistic complexity to the characters and the many issues they encounter. The staging is effective in bringing an urgency to the piece and swiftly moving the plot along while also capturing the essence and importance of Morissette's groundbreaking music and words.
The national tour cast are exceptional in how they create three-dimensional individuals. Julie Reiber is a force to be reckoned with as Mary Jane Healy, capturing the character's complexity with nuance, vulnerability, and emotional depth. Her rendition of "Smiling," which shows a day in Mary Jane's life in reverse, is beautifully sung, and her intensity in "Forgiven" and her resilience in "You Learn" are just a few of the highlights in a perfect performance. Also, the erratic and frantic actions she brings to the character create a perfect depiction of addiction. Teralin Jones, as Frankie Healy, embodies teenage rebellion and self-discovery with intense passion and a fiery spirit. Her performance of "Ironic" brings a nice amount of humor to the show and her many other songs showcase her vocal prowess and emotional range.
As Steve Healy, Benjamin Eakeley delivers a nuanced performance that captures the struggles of a well-intentioned but overworked and flawed father. Dillon Klena brings a compelling mix of charm and internal conflict as Nick Healy, the good son who is sometimes unsure of himself. (Dillon's older brother Derek played the role on Broadway.) Jade McLeod, as Jo, delivers a truly show-stopping performance of "You Oughta Know." Their emotional intensity and vocal prowess are nothing short of electrifying on this song and the others they sing as well as in their portrayal of this intriguing character who is grappling with feelings of love and betrayal. Allison Sheppard brings a rich emotional intensity to the part of Bella, a girl who goes to the same school as Frankie and Nick, and Rishi Golani is appropriately nerdy and charming as a boy in Frankie's class, Phoenix. The ensemble, as a silent Greek chorus of sorts, adds depth and texture to the storytelling along with a raw intensity to their background and solo vocals.
Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's work adds sharp and stylistic, visually stunning movement and dance sequences that frequently mirror the emotional undercurrents of the characters' feelings and actions. Shelby Finnie delivers an impressive solo that combines movement and dance as a mirror image of Mary Jane during a pivotal moment in the second act. Riccardo Hernandez's sleek and dynamic set design seamlessly transforms from one setting to another with the video projections by Lucy Mackinnon adding rich and dynamic backgrounds that quickly set the location for each scene. Jonathan Deans' sound design derives rich notes from the band and cast but there are several times when the ensemble or band overpower the individual singing, which makes the lyrics muddy.
Jagged Little Pill is both a nostalgic trip down memory lane for fans of Alanis Morissette's music and also a modern musical that, fortunately, transcends the recent jukebox musical genre trend of using a recording artist's songs to depict their own personal climb to fame. Morissette's lyrics are effectively used as a powerful vehicle for a modern story that reflects on societal norms, individual responsibility, and the pursuit of authenticity. If it's been a while since you heard these songs, hearing them again, over twenty years after they were released and with that many more years of personal experience, will most likely find you connecting to the emotions of the lyrics in an entirely different way. If you're not familiar with these songs and are more interested in traditional musicals you may not have the same experience as those around you but, hopefully, you'll let the music, lyrics, and emotions of the characters wash over you and experience something that is unlike any other modern musical out there in the raw, cathartic sense of feeling it inspires.
Jagged Little Pill runs through February 4, 2024, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For information on the tour, visit jaggedlittlepill.com/tour/.
Lyrics by Alanis Morissette