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A CurtainUp Review
Jagged Little Pill
By Dan Rubins
Jagged Little Pill, at least, could hardly be accused of doing nothing. In fact, I’d imagine that it would be good if it did a whole lot less. Exhaustingly shaped by the ever-imaginative director Diane Paulus (Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Waitress) and book-writer Diablo Cody (who wrote the screenplay for Juno), the latest Broadway jukebox looks great, sounds great, and, really, except for that one lovely trio, rings hollow.
What made the original Jagged Little Pill alt-rock album so ruggedly compelling in 1995 was Morissette’s specific voice — lyrics that combine the rawly adolescent with the perversely poetic, achingly amplified by the singer’s keen croon that sometimes sounds a bit like the harmonica that opens the album. It matters that the album’s coherence comes from the unity of the storytelling: this is one woman’s — one storyteller’s — complex, multi-faceted self-analysis.
In Jagged Little Pill the musical, nearly two dozen of Morrissette’s songs (some from other albums and two written for the show) get spread around, infusing every single character in suburban Connecticut with the same angsty wail, regardless of who they are and what they're saying. Maybe that’s why Paulus has supplied a frenzied chorus of dancing emo kids, looking far too cool to be hanging out in the same neighborhood as the picture-perfect family at the show’s center.
There’s mom Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley), secretly popping opioids between spin classes; dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is a workaholic, binging porn at the office; daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) has always stood out in the family (she’s adopted and black), but now she’s also a high school activist exploring her bisexuality; son Nick (Derek Klena) has been accepted into Harvard as expected, but the one time he goes to a party, he ends up tacitly abetting the rape of his friend Bella (Kathryn Gallagher). There’s plenty to unpack but very little depth given to any of the characters’ crises.
And when some actual plot points finally arrive, the inciting incident of the first act belongs to Bella, not the Healys. No matter: Cody coöpts Bella’s story as a catalyst for each Healy’s own redemptive arc. The protagonists spend most of the show reacting to other people’s lives and taking very little responsibility for their own.
Cody’s book strains, in the grand tradition of jukebox musicals, to build a narrative around Morissette’s songs. The characters, as a result, don’t have any real existence outside of the tunes — instead of flesh and blood, they’re constructed from snatches of lyrics and patches of melody. The dialogue often manages to wriggle its way into a transition to the opening line of each song, but few of Morissette’s complete lyrics work in the context of the story. It’s a little pathetic that the first act has to end in a church pew in order for Mary Jane Healey (she’s named “Mary Jane” because that’s the title of another song) to sing the opening line of “Forgiven”: “You know how us Catholic girls can be.”
Those songs mainly sound fantastic, thanks to the music supervisor and arranger Tom Kitt (prolific composer of Next to Normal, plus two new musicals opening in New York in March) who freshens up the score with enlivening choral harmonies. It’s the women, rightfully, who steal the show, with superb vocal performances from Stanley, Gooding, and Lauren Patten as the girlfriend Frankie abandons for a guy (Cipriano). Patten gets a mid-show standing ovation for her raw take on “You Oughta Know,” but that’s partly because Paulus transforms the intimate context into an insta-rock concert, with flashing lights and head-banging. If coherent dramaturgy mattered more than screaming fans, would stopping the show (and the storytelling) be worth it?
Overriding intimacy with immensity seems to be Paulus’ general approach to Jagged Little Pill’s staging: there are neat optical illusion sliding walls from Riccardo Hernández and frenetically engaging video by Lucy Mackinnon (I’ve had a weakness for moving train projections ever since The Woman in White). But there’s seldom a sense in any of the overwhelming images or gestures (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui provides the hyperkinetic choreography) that this story demands such supersized treatment. The overstimulating production doesn’t help center an already wildly unfocused script.
At times, Cody’s book seems to aim for wry self-awareness. Morissette’s best-known song “Ironic” shows up in an English class where Frankie’s classmates make the infamous observation that few of the examples of irony in the lyrics (“It’s like rain on your wedding day”) are actually ironic. (I first encountered Morissette in a similar conversation in my 7th grade English class.) But even when the show elsewhere gently mocks the teen activists for casting too wide a net in their fight for social justice, for taking on too many causes without fully diving into any of them, Jagged Little Pill doesn’t seem to realize it’s done exactly the same thing.
Isn’t that ironic? Not really, no, just a big disappointment.
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Jagged Little Pill Lyrics by Alanis Morissette
Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard
Book by Diablo Cody
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Orchestrations and Arrangements by Tom Kitt
Cast: Kathryn Gallagher, Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Sean Allan Krill, Lauren Patten, Elizabeth Stanley, Anthony Cipriano, Logan Hart, Nora Schell, Ebony Williams, Laurel Harris, Jane Bruce, Heather Lang, John Cardoza, and Max Kumangai
Set Designer: Riccardo Hernández
Costume Designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Designer: Justin Townsend
Sound Designer: Jonathan Deans
Video Designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Music Director: Bryan Perri
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with an intermission
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street
From 11/3/19; opening 12/5/19; open-ended run
Tuesdays at 7:00; Wednesdays at 2:00 and 7:30; Thursdays at 7:00; Fridays at 8:00; Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00; and Sundays at 3:00
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 12/13 performance
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