BWW Review: Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody's Issue-Infused Alanis Morissette Musical JAGGED LITTLE PILL
Late in the second act of Jagged Little Pill, the new musical with a score derived primarily from Alanis Morissette's same-titled 1995 album, a group of young people, outraged at both the occurrence of a rape at a recent party and the existence of a culture that discourages the victim from telling her side of the story and a witness from revealing what he saw, hold a protest rally, carrying signs with slogans about believing those who say they were raped, respecting the refusal (or the incapability) of consent and how rape and rape culture effects all people, regardless of gender.
They sing full out to the audience the words of "No", demanding an answer to the question, "What part of 'no' do you not understand?" and warning, "I've sat on these secrets / I'm no longer willing to."
The company marches fully downstage into a face-to-face accusation of anyone in the audience who is deserving of it; a breathtaking moment of the rightful claiming of power and, despite the reservations this reviewer has about the new musical at the Broadhurst, bookwriter Diablo Cody and director Diane Paulus deserve abundant praise for creating this very important moment and firmly placing it on a Broadway stage.
All other elements being equal, the most successfully realized jukebox musicals tend to be the ones that realistically use existing songs to tell the stories of the artists who wrote and/or sang them (like the current AIN'T TOO PROUD and TINA) and the ones that are flat-out comedies that use the inclusion of hit songs as punch lines (check out the Off-Broadway return of ROCK OF AGES).
It gets more complex when placing a collection of existing songs into an original serious drama because their lyrics, not created for the situations, tend to stop the storytelling instead of enhancing and developing it.
Cody, who has no theatre writing credits in her bio, attempts to connect songs written by Morissette in collaboration with Glen Ballard into the story of Mary Jane (excellent work by Elizabeth Stanley), a perfection-obsessed suburban mom who gets addicted to opioids after a car accident and desperately tries keeping up appearances while sexually cutting off her overworked lawyer husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) who, feeling rejected, turns to Internet porn.
Their biological son Nick (Derek Klena), recently accepted by Harvard, has been dutifully nice and well-behaved and is beginning to feel the pressures of remaining so.
Mary Jane and Steve, who are white, also have a black adopted daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) and seem oblivious to her cultural needs. Frankie is the school's self-appointed head activist whose only partner in progressiveness is her girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten). When students in her creative writing class criticize her poem about irony for improperly defining the word ironic (Morissette fans will get the joke), the only one who stands up for her is new kid Phoenix (Antonio Cipriani), and soon Frankie is forgetting all about Jo.
When classmate Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) is raped at a party, the questions of who did what, who saw what, who should speak up and who is to be believed are all brought into play, with Mary Jane and Frankie clashing over issues of alcohol, dress and responsibility.
Within that narrative, there are numerous topics that seem perfect for musicalization, such as Frankie's feelings that her parents display her as a symbol of their liberal sensitivity, the fact that Frankie and Jo both have mothers that - for contrasting reasons - complain about the way they dress, Mary Jane's turning to a skateboarding drug dealer for relief after running dry of doctor prescriptions and a scene where she and Steve visit a marriage counselor.
Instead we get a theatre piece dominated by moments where characters summarize their emotions with power ballads that, despite some lyric revisions here and there, have little to directly do with what's going on. Everyone expresses themselves in the same musical and lyrical language (some even imitate Morissette's breathy growl on occasion) with their sentiments sometimes echoed by a Greek chorus of ensemble members choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. This is especially distracting when Patten's Jo confronts the cheating Frankie with the ferocious "You Oughta Know", a personal moment where focus is stolen by the unnecessary backup and by designer Justin Townsend's lights glaring into our faces. (At least Patten is spotlighted nicely when her character is introduced with her jaunty performance of "Hand In My Pocket.")
There are two new songs. "Smiling" is a rather obvious solo for Mary Jane about covering up the intensifying stress. Much more effective is "Predator", where Bella recalls the events of the party ("My armor is porous enough to be worked by your design.").
Paulus, who has one of the strongest directorial hands working today, does her usual fine work of presenting vivid pictures, the one misstep being an out of place gag involving a character's exit through the audience. Tom Kitt's orchestrations expand Morissette's indie sound into something more theatre-textured.
No doubt Jagged Little Pill will excite fans whose prime interest is to hear a beloved song catalogue performed by terrific Broadway singers. If Alanis Morissette ever decides to write an original musical score for the stage, the news will excite this theatregoer as well.