Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Jagged Little Pill
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas


Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard
and Jena VanElslander

Photo by Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade
In the world of musical theatre, light tends to be the order of the day. Sure, there are some dark musicals focusing on dysfunctional families, murder, mental illness (e.g., Gypsy, Next to Normal, Carousel, Sweeney Todd), but for the most part, musicals tend to inhabit more temperate emotional climates.

To that list of more melancholic musicals we can add Jagged Little Pill, whose touring production is currently appearing at the Golden Gate Theatre. Written by Alanis Morissette (and titled after her platinum-selling album of the same name) and Glen Ballard (additional music by Michael Farrell Guy Sigsworth), with a book by Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for her script for the film Juno), Jagged Little Pill tells the story of the Healys, a family of four living in Connecticut who, on the surface, have it all: dad Steve (Chris Hoch) is a successful attorney; mom Mary Jane/MJ (Heidi Blickenstaff) is in the Martha Stewart mold of do it all and do it better than any of your neighbors; son Nick (Dillon Klena) is an overachiever who has just been accepted for early admission to Harvard; and 16-year-old adopted daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel) is a sensitive poet/writer type who is exploring her sexuality and testing her parents' (and society's) boundaries.

But scratch that polished surface even slightly and you'll find enough denial, anxiety, angst, and emo posturing to fill their gabled suburban home to the rafters. Steve is billing 60 hours a week at his law firm, but much of his free time is spent surfing for porn. MJ is recovering from an auto accident, and while she writes in the family's annual Christmas letter that she's dealing with the pain with acupuncture and herbal remedies, she's actually popping Oxy pills like they were Pez. Nick doesn't seem nearly as excited about going to Harvard as everyone expects him to be, while Frankie is making out with her friend Jo (Jade McLeod), starting a group for progressive activism at her school, and dealing with the pressures of being Black in a white family in a predominantly white town. Each has their own desires, which are laid out as the family sings one of Morissette's biggest hits, "All I Really Want" and the chorus parades with an array of homemade signs addressing all manner of left-leaning political causes.

Cody's book seems to mesh perfectly with Morrissette's mostly angry, angsty songs and their darkly clever lyrics. One of the best lines of the night happens when MJ goes out for coffee with her friends from a SoulCycle class, and one of the women asks for a "skinny flat white" and the barista casually drops "How appropriate." Which is not only funny in context, but also calls back that very same line, sung earlier in "All I Really Want." But perhaps the most satisfying scene Cody created takes place in Frankie's English class when she reads a story of hers that are the lyrics to one of Morissette's biggest hits, "Ironic." The song has been dissed in popular culture because its lyrics describe tragedy more than irony: "It's a black fly in your chardonnay–it's a death row pardon two minutes too late." Frankie's classmates' comments take the same path critics have to the song, mocking its non-irony, but the new kid in school, Phoenix ("Like the mythical bird of flame or the third-rate city–your choice.") loves it, and the two begin a friendship/romance that leaves Jo on the outs.

With MJ resorting to street dealers when her prescriptions run out, and the kids attending a high school party where Fireball shots lead to tragic consequences, Jagged Little Pill really dives into the darkness. But with Diablo Cody's deep empathy for teen travails and rocky marriages, and the biting sarcasm she peppers through her book, the show–even at its most morose–never loses energy.

Of course, audience members have Morissette's driving rock score to thank for keeping the energy level high. The tight eight-piece band led by Matt Doebler share some of the credit, as well, as does some terrific dancing by the chorus. The choreography, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is as in tune with Morissette's musical vibe as Cody's book is: it's angular and grungy, almost violent at times, but somehow revealing a tenderness beneath the adolescent posturing. There is a stunning pas de trois, near the top of Act Two when MJ is having a reaction to her street meds, that is gorgeous, almost liquid in its grace and heartwrenching in its physical expression of stress and surrender.

Despite Diablo's book being a bit cliched (the happy family with hidden secrets has been done to death), her snarky take on the material mostly redeems the predictability of the storyline. And strong performances from the cast, especially Heidi Blickenstaff as MJ and Rishi Golani as Phoenix, help undercut the darkness of the source material.

Jagged Little Pill runs through November 6, 2022, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit jaggedlittlepill.com/tour/.


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