BWW Album Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL Scratches and Burns
So many of us remember exactly where we were when we first heard Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill. For me, it was the first album I purchased for myself, and I studied it thoroughly. I easily tapped into the excitement experienced by my ten-year-old self who gleefully ripped the shrink wrap off and popped the CD into his portable Aiwa CD Player when downloading my review copy of Jagged Little Pill (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Sadly, I was met by streams of disappointment and infuriating rage listening to it. The album, serving as my first glimpse into the Broadway musical, is not the listening experience I expected nor wanted.
The overture rollicks to life with a vibrant yet angsty guitar riff. Then, human voices layer in and sing random lines from a medley of Morissette's hit songs in a carnival of bizarre, show choir-esque settings. None of the lyrics are in communication with each other, making the overture feel like a fever dream of nostalgia sung by the kids on Fox's GLEE. I found myself instantly wondering, "Are musical director Bryan Perri and orchestrater Tom Kitt punking me?" Sadly, the album doesn't ever shake the glee club gone awry feeling as it transitions into "Right Through You," which confusingly plays out like a Hit Clips by Kidz Bop rendition of the song. The track then confounds listeners as lyrics from "Forgiven" are layered in.
The audience next arrives at "All I Really Want," which continues in the vein of Kidz Bop but starts to draw us closer to the source material. On the track, Celia Gooding kind of channels Morissette in a way that indicates she was directed to approach the singer's iconic guttural, vocal riffs while also staying away from them. The song is also the first time we encounter some of the laughable and often egregious lyric changes. "I am fascinated by the spiritual woman / I'm humbled by her humble nature" Gooding sings. One can only guess that changes to the gender of the spiritual person was to remind audiences that it is now 2019 and that we're hip and progressive enough to recognize that maybe it is not a "spiritual man?"
"Hand in My Pocket" introduces listeners to the wonder that is Lauren Patten's grounded, earthy alto timbre. "Smiling," one of two new songs written for the production, allows listeners to bask in the glory of Elizabeth Stanley's instrument, even if the song so obviously uses the same chord progressions, phrasing, rhyme scheme, and verbiage as "Uninvited" that we instantly recognize it as that tune's pre-prise.
Next up is Morissette's breakout hit "Ironic." Here, a listener may expect the album is starting to take shape and may not be as bad as the opening tracks indicated. Then, the interjections from Diablo Cody's book prove that listener wrong by more-or-less saying, "Hey! Remember Rachael Hurwitz's "It's Finally Ironic" music video? So do we! Just listen to our character's caddy classmates! Total LoLz, am I right?"
This is chased by the first of two massively cringe worthy moments written into the show for Sean Allan Krill. A man singing Morissette's "So Unsexy," which is so powerfully rooted in the female experience, seems horribly misguided. Later, he gets to turn "Mary Jane" into a condescending, patronizing, and unsettlingly heartless ballad. Maybe it doesn't play that way on stage, but on the album it comes right after Stanley, as Krill's wife, has seemingly confronted the woman he has been cheating on her with. Not a good look, especially when paired with his remorseless vocal intonations on "Mary Jane."
Tackling the riveting "Perfect," Derek Klena sounds phenomenal and infuses it with all the requisite emotions, even if the tune is truncated and manipulated to shoehorn it into whatever moment it comes into during the production. Similarly, "So Pure" is tacked into the playlist. It's clear the creatives were really unsure of how to use it, so it features instrumental breaks that seem to indicate dialogue is spoken during them but not present on the album itself. Then, the album takes another turn and presents listeners with an iteration of "That I Would Be Good" that is rife with confounding lyrics changes ("if I lost my hair and my youth" becomes "if my hair stays wild") but also changes the texture of the original song. It's one of the few songs on the album that attempts this. It's as effective as it is surprising for this track, especially since the new lyrics and melody are safely placed in Patten's more than capable hands.
"Wake Up" is an interesting dialogue moment, with a lyric change that unsettles at the top of the number. Gooding's character indicates that the metaphorical rose from the source material is taken for granted as it physically lies on the floor of the stage because for some reason we couldn't have her character feel as if Klena's character took advantage of her? Then, towards the end, lyrics from "Hands Clean" are layered in for no discernable reason. The chorus and bridge of the "Hands Clean" will later serve as the Enter'Acte, so perhaps the creatives just want to tie the two acts together in a viscerally tangible way.
Stanley delivers "Unforgiven" in the most rousing and traditional of Broadway Act I finale ways. It perfectly builds to layered vocals over the sounds of a church choir backed by epic and angry rock instrumentals. The lyric changes to the first person for Stanley in the chorus work, even if "So I will" is jarring compared to the original "So I did." Yet, the company singing repeated ohs for sonic accents and the words "Sinner," "Witch," and "Whore" in staccato is laughable on the album without the context of the show. Perhaps a synopsis and some liner notes would help here?
In Act II, "Not The Doctor" (my favorite song from the original album) is turned into a joke that introduces Doctor Claire. The short musical moment is as upsetting as it is unfulfilling. But, "Head Over Feet" almost makes you forgive the creatives that moment because the splitting of the opening phrases between Krill and Antonio Cipriano and then Stanley and Gooding is deliciously effective, even if it does feel very NEXT TO NORMAL. The track ends, in a keen nod to "Your House" being the Jagged Little Pill album's hidden track, with Patten's sumptuous vocals making the most of a disappointedly pared down a capella rendition of the heartbreaking song. Following this, Gooding reprises her almost, but not quite Morissette vocals on "Unprodigal Daughter."
"Predator," the second original song written for the musical, is the highlight of the album. Kathryn Gallagher's vocalizations are absolutely beautiful and truly stunning on the understated tune. Sonically, as the background is mostly a single piano, the song is much more reminiscent of later Morissette or even Tori Amos songs.
The emotional apex of the album is reached as Patten powerfully rocks her way through "You Oughta Know," which is rife with lyric changes. It also features some of the most unnecessary company as backing vocals moments that I can recall. The cacophony of "You Outta Know" fades into the new rambunctious opening of "Uninvited." Thankfully, it quickly yields into the familiar and plaintiff piano line, and Stanley and Gallagher perform the song with mesmerizing aplomb despite wacky lyric choices.
"No," the one entry from Havoc and Bright Lights, is a big group number that feels empty and hollow in a show choir inspired setting that features the cast taking turns signing a line here and there before coming together to sing the repeated chorus in unison. As icing on the cake, some lyrics from "Wake Up" pop up towards the end to aurally tie it all together, which is unfortunately numbing. Continuing in that vein, "Thank U" is presented in a truncated version that includes some nicely crafted and new vocal rebuttals (i.e. "I'm reaching out to make amends / No pressure for you to let me in"). It seems forgiveness and moving on are the closing themes since a saccharine, "Kum Bah Yah"-like rendition of "You Learn" serves as the album's finale.
JAGGED LITTLE PILL (Original Broadway Cast Recording) had massive shoes to fill, undoubtedly. Yet, it seems hesitant to do anything more than step its toes into the heels of those shoes. Maybe, within the context of the live performance, it all works. But, as a postcard from the musical to entice audiences to buy tickets to the Broadway production, the album is anything but persuasive.