As heartfelt a musical about a troubled family as “Next To Normal,” as full of jaunty and jumpy rock rebellion as “Rent,” it’s hard to dismiss “Jagged Little Pill” as just another jukebox musical, even though its score is made up largely of the songs from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album of the same name. The show is both tuneful and socially conscious, with some startlingly memorable lyrics, There are moments that are exhilarating. But even the most exhilarating number in the show helps illustrate the problems that seem inherent in fitting a new story around old hits.
In “You Oughta Know,” Jo confronts her girlfriend Jackie, whom she had discovered in bed with a new boy in their high school named Phoenix:
“Every time you speak his name,
does he know how you told me you’d be there until you died.
Til you died, but you’re still alive….you, you, you oughta know. You, you,you,you…”
As Jo, Lauren Patten’s delivery of the song is so forceful and electric that it prompted a standing ovation.
But as soon as it ends, Jackie’s phone rings. “It’s my mom. Something’s wrong,” Jackie Healy says.
It’s just the latest calamity to strike the Healy family — exemplary Connecticut suburban mother Mary Jane, hard working father Stephen, son Nick who just got into Harvard and adopted African-American daughter Jackie — who on the surface seem a Christmas card family; indeed the musical begins with Mary Jane presenting her annual Christmas card account of the family’s year. What she leaves out: Recovering from a car accident, she has become a familiar face to the local pharmacist…and the local dealer. “I’ll be at the alley behind Connecticut Muffin.”
Bad things happen to each of the other central characters in “Little Jagged Pill” as well. At the end of its two and a half hour, Morissette’s lyrics and the dialogue by Diablo Cody (screenwriter of “Juno”) have dramatized such urgent current issues as opioid addiction and rape culture — and also interracial adoption, marital discord, coming out, teenage rebellion, teenage drunkenness and yes, teenage romance. But the triangle of Jo, Jackie and Phoenix feels a subplot at best, more convenient than organic — a way to fit in a few more Morissette songs.
Some of these stories produce some powerful moments. Some of the songs are worked in terrifically well. Some are not. And the piling on of troubles, distributed nearly equally among the characters, starts to feel artificial, like a strategy. This can undermine the impact of the issues at hand, especially in those numbers when the young cast members stand in a row at the lip of the stage, holding up fake home-drawn protest signs, singing anthem-like with the sort of super serious stares that seem an adolescent specialty — enhanced (or made more absurd) by footlights that turn their faces into haunting shadows.
Still, there is enough that works in “Jagged Little Pill,” including a superb cast and great orchestrations (by Tom Kitt, composer of Next To Normal), to please fans of both Morissette and Cody, and perhaps make new ones, with its mix of pathos and passion and humor.
When Jo discovers Phoenix in bed with Jackie, he’s delighted to run into a classmate, oblivious to the awkwardness of the situation. “We dissected an earthworm together. It had five hearts still all beating.”
Jagged Little Pill
Book by Diablo Cody. Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, lyrics by Morissette.Directed by Diane Paulus. Movement Direction & Choreography by Olivier Award winner and frequent Beyoncé collaborator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and Musical Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements by Tom Kitt.
Cast: Elizabeth Stanley as “Mary Jane,” Sean Allan Krill as “Steve”, Celia Rose Gooding as “Frankie” and Derek Klena (Anastasia) as “Nick”; Kathryn Gallagher as “Bella,” Lauren Patten as “Jo,” Antonio Cipriano as “Phoenix,” Annelise Baker, Yeman Brown, Jane Bruce, John Cardoza, Ken Wulf Clark, Laurel Harris, Logan Hart, Zach Hess, Max Kumangai, Heather Lang, Ezra Menas, Kelsey Orem, Yana Perrault, Nora Schell, Kei Tsuruharatani and Ebony Williams.