Theatre Review: A Battle of Traumas, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ is Difficult to Swallow

Kevin Taft's take on the jukebox musical featuring the music of Alanis Morrissette.
User Rating: 4

The Alanis Morrissette jukebox musical “Jagged Little Pill” set to her iconic album has been unleashed on tour and is sure to inject itself into the hearts and minds of Gen Zers everywhere.

To be honest, I saw this show on Broadway when it first opened, and I wasn’t a fan. While some of the musical arrangements were interesting and most of the vocals were pretty stellar, the book by Diablo Cody has to be one of the most convoluted and aggressively woke pieces ever subjected to stage.

Why an album about a 20-something’s angst in relationships, childhood traumas, and the pangs of growing up has turned into a musical focusing on a middle-aged woman with an opiate problem is suspect. But that’s partly not true. While we open and close the musical with this character, she is surrounded by a myriad of people dealing with their own dramatic issues that sometimes come across as a wee bit selfish. Which makes the bigger issues fall by the wayside. Basically, everyone is trying to trump everyone else’s trauma with theirs. And it’s annoying.

Heidi Blickenstaff plays housewife Mary Jane. (Get it? Because that was one of the songs on the album? Yeah, this is the height of cleverness we’re working with.) She appears sunny and joyful on the outside, delighted with her Harvard-bound jock son Nick (Dillon Klena), her adopted cause-oriented daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel), and her providing husband Steve (Chris Hoch). But we quickly learn that she has an opiate addiction brought on by an accident a year earlier and the stress of unhealed trauma. Not to mention, her husband is addicted to porn and hasn’t touched her, her daughter is acting out regarding her race and her sexuality, and her son is feeling the pressure to be perfect.

There is nothing here we haven’t seen before, and didn’t some of this come up in the already produced “Next to Normal?” I digress.

If this family’s issues weren’t enough, we have Jo (Jade McLeod), Frankie’s girlfriend whose mother (we see her literally once) doesn’t like that she dresses down and wishes she would be different. Jo just wants to be herself. Cool. Noble. But then you add in a new kid Phoenix (Rishi Golani), who has an instant connection to Frankie, causing her bisexuality to come to the forefront – much to Jo’s dismay. Oh, and Phoenix is dealing with a disabled sister that causes issues for him as well. See? Everyone has them.

Then there’s Bella (Allison Shepphard.) She’s a gal with too much to drink at a party and is date-raped. Awful. Terrible. She then has to deal with the people who don’t believe her and the resulting guilt and shame.

All of these issues and traumas are valid. All can and should be explored. But it is absolutely too many stories for one show. Nothing is given the justice it’s due. Cody’s book tries to be something to everyone and, in doing so, makes the issues feel flat and earnest. The characters progressively become unlikeable because they can’t stop bringing the conversation back to themselves. While the ultimate message might be, “we all have problems, so start seeing them in everyone,” it just doesn’t work.

If it’s about one family, make it about one family. Not that family and a myriad of people around them. The book is so aware that it is “in the right” about every issue presented that they have moments of self-congratulation. During a musical protest number, literally, every current issue was represented by a protest sign. So what exactly was the protest for? EVERYTHING? When the song ends, the cast lines up on stage holding up their signs, clearly waiting for an extended self-congratulatory applause (that really never came.) It’s like the creators aggressively want people to see how “of the moment” they are and applaud them for it. It feels almost icky.

Look, the issues presented are real and problematic, and the show always sides on the right side of history. But it’s too much, too obvious, and a little pompous. The dialogue is filled with one-liners that feel stale and like they were stolen from memes.

As for the cast, Blickenstaff has a fantastic voice, and her characterization reminded me of Connie Britton. She’s amusing, but the show’s tone is all over the place. It’s hard to truly engage with her. But that voice… fantastic. Golani as the new boyfriend of Frankie has an effortless voice that was a welcome relief from the rest of the cast, that seemed to be trying to outscream each other. The acting by all is fine (if only they had better material to work with), but I was surprised there weren’t stronger singers. The person cast as Jo has to knock “You Oughta’ Know” out of the park. Sadly, she doesn’t.

Add to all this the peculiar staging by Diane Paulus that involves random, a frenetic modern dance that comes out of nowhere and often distracts from the actors and singers onstage. Only once is it effective when Mary Jane belts “Uninvited” as her alter ego writhes in dance-pain around a couch. Otherwise, it just seems unnecessary.

I often wonder how much involvement Alanis had in this show. The story doesn’t fit her songs. They clearly created a story to match the lyrics- sometimes very obviously – but it doesn’t dig as deeply as Alanis did. Alanis writes profound lyrics about urgent topics. Here. It felt like it all became superficial and shallow. She deserved better.

“Jagged Little Pill” plays the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through October 2nd. For more information and for tickets, visit BroadwayinHollywood.com.

4
Poor
Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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