Saturday, December 14, 2019

134 (2019-2020): Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL (seen December 12, 2019)

“Perfectly Imperfect”

There are jagged little edges on Broadway’s newest jukebox musical, Jagged Little Pill, inspired by Alanis Morissette’s blockbuster album of 1995, composed and performed when the Canadian alt-rocker was only 19. (The show, later reworked, premiered last year at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre). Hyper-kinetically directed by Diane Paulus (Waitress, Pippin), and with a multi-themed book by Diablo Cody (the movie Juno), Jagged Little Pill weaves the songs (lyrics: Morissette; music: Morissette and Glen Ballard) into an original story. It gets its laughs but is mainly in the dark, angst-ridden vein of musicals like Next to Normal
Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill. All photos: Matthew Murphy.
Orchestrated and arranged by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Kitt, with an eight-piece orchestra upstage, the show uses roughly half of the album’s 22 songs. Remaining are two unreleased numbers, “Predator” and “Smiling,” four from other albums (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept), one from the album Feast on Scraps, one from the bonus track of the album Havoc and Bright Lights, and one from the soundtrack of the movie City of Angels.
Celia Rose Gooding and company.
Jagged Little Pill, playing at the Broadhurst, removes the personalized specificity of the album, which expresses Morissette’s anger-fueled reaction to the breakup of a romantic relationship, and which spoke deeply to young people, especially women, growing up in the 90s. Instead, it employs the songs—favoring emotional over narrative expression—to enhance a dysfunctional family drama, laden with socially significant issues. Music originally written for a single voice has been divided either for multiple characters, for company-backed solos, or for all-company performance.
Derek Klena and company.
Judging by the enthusiastic response, across the gender and age (to a point) spectrum, this approach appears to raise few audience objections. My middle-aged daughter, an ardent Morissette fan, was impressed. I, however, a Morissette virgin already middle-aged when the album came out, was unable at first hearing to surf its wavelength without sometimes falling off. My appreciation remained superficial, suggesting that greater familiarity with the album, or even with Morissette’s unique voice (not heard here), might have led to a warmer response.
Celia Rose Gooding and company.
While many of the songs seem more or less organically related to their newfound contexts, others fit in less comfortably, like jigsaw puzzle pieces that look right until you try to squeeze them into their slots. Moreover, Cody’s book attaches the songs to a narrative with so many different issues that Jagged Little Pill nearly becomes a jagged survey of contemporary wokeness.
Elizabeth Stanley.
Bookending the show are Christmas scenes at the suburban Connecticut home of the well-to-do Healy family (a name hinting at what everyone in the family will require), with pretty, competitive supermom Mary Jane a.k.a. MJ (Elizabeth Stanley, excellent) composing an annual Christmas letter on her laptop. Mary Jane, we’ll soon discover, had a car accident earlier in the year, became addicted to painkillers like Oxycodone, lost her sex drive, and was reduced to buying back alley drugs. She also has a secret the plot will force her to divulge.
Nora Schell and company.
Her husband, Steve (Sean Allan Krill, epitomizing white bread suburbia), is a workaholic lawyer who compensates for MJ’s bedroom boredom by watching porn, duly noted when MJ admits to spying on his browser history. Super-son Nick (Derek Klena, appealing), partly because MJ makes his decisions for him, has been accepted to Harvard, while 16-year-old, adopted daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding, power-voiced), is African American.
Lauren Patten and company.
Nick’s clay feet will be exposed when he witnesses but doesn’t report the party rape by his equally privileged high school friend, Andrew (Logan Hart, fine), of the less privileged Bella (Kathryn Gallagher, intense). Frankie, increasingly sensitive to her racial difference from her family, uses her feelings of alienation to become politically active, beginning with protests about her school’s refusal to provide girls with free sanitary napkins. She’s also bisexual, leading to an intense dalliance with the overtly lesbian Jo (Lauren Patten, the big takeaway) before she switches to cute boy Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano, cute).
Elizabeth Stanley, Kathryn Gallagher, and company.
This eventually triggers the 11 o’clock number, “You Oughta Know,” in which Lauren Patten’s Jo, feeling betrayed, puts on a musical display of such Tony-worthy, pyrotechnical fury that the producers added the audience’s clapping to the running time. On the other hand, having this secondary character do the show’s biggest number unbalances the dramatic structure.

Cody uses the Healy family dynamic to weave in not only problems of marital sex, opioid addiction, porn obsession, biracial family conflict, party rape, social media slut shaming, teen drinking, and sexual orientation, but—as per the student demonstrations that pop up—even passing glances at gun control and climate change.
Elizabeth Stanley, Heather Lang.
For a time, it’s push and pull over whose problem is the most pressing, MJ’s, Frankie’s, Bella’s, or Jo’s. Eventually MJ’s struggle dominates, after which a happy-ending-of-sorts rapprochement is reached, with the understanding of how “perfectly imperfect” everyone is, and the family again gathers around as mom composes yet another Christmas letter.
Celia Rose Gooding, Antonio Cipriano. 
Riccardo Hernández has crafted a complex set of flying and sliding panels, combined with the extensive video projections of Lucy Mackinnon, to move the many scenes along swiftly under Justin Townsend’s scintillating light design. Emily Rebholz’s costumes include a bevy of ultracool togs for the high-school kids, all of whom look more like mall rats than library brats.
Derek Klena and company.
Many shifts involve the constantly busy chorus, a good number of whom get a brief character scene or other noteworthy business. Most distinctive is Heather Lang, a lanky, blonde dancer who serves as the attention-grabbing doppelganger for Bella’s rape scene and as an anguished, flopping, flying, and flailing MJ in “Uninvited.” Ebony Williams is another eye-catcher with her unusually sinuous plasticity in the choreographic hands of Beyoncé collaborator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The latter's dances often seem like gold-standard versions of the writhing, twisting, jumping, and punching routines sometimes offered by street and subway buskers.
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Jagged Little Pill, well-performed and slickly produced, never convinced me of its necessity. That is, its incorporation of Alanis Morissette’s music, written from other motives, in a story of family dysfunction and social unease, seems more a wishful concept than a work of organic integrity, a problem endemic to shows trying to hook popular songs to an unrelated story, be it White Christmas or Head Over Heels.
Company of Jagged Little Pill.
Just as Mary Jane concludes that we’re all perfectly imperfect, so can we declare that Jagged Little Pill is a perfectly imperfect jukebox musical.

Broadhurst Theatre
235 W. 44th St., NYC
Open run