Incredible Songs and Ingenious Book Propel Audience Bliss With JAGGED LITTLE PILL at Hippodrome

Now through December 18th.

By: Dec. 15, 2022
Incredible Songs and Ingenious Book Propel Audience Bliss With JAGGED LITTLE PILL at Hippodrome
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If you were paying attention to pop music in 1995, you were probably bowled over, as I was, by Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette's volcanically angry, searingly tuneful album that delivered a host of singles hits, including "Ironic", "You Oughta Know", and "You Learn". As the critics often commented at the time, the numbers on that album collectively sketched out the identity of a single protagonist behind Morissette's voice and the lyrics she sang, a young straight White woman undergoing issues mostly with parents and male lovers. (Morissette was 19 when the tracks were laid down.) I was certainly not in that demographic at all, but the sheer anger informing those songs chimed powerfully with anger I had just channeled in my own life into making some important and liberating changes, and as I was driving to work I would sing along loudly with a cassette of the album. What closed the sale for me were the melodies by Morissette and her producer Glen Ballard, lines of which frequently closed out with deliciously discordant chords, and hooks that didn't let go.

Given the very definite persona and the voice behind those songs and those in Morissette's next album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, one would not have anticipated the course chosen by the adapters who turned those albums into a musical. There are four well-known paths to creating "jukebox musicals," i.e. musicals built around a pre-existing songbook. One can do a biographical sketch of the singer(s) or songwriter(s), a la Jersey Boys, or one can recreate a concert by the performer, as in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, or one can do a revue featuring the songs, along the lines of Ain't Misbehavin' or Smokey Joe's Café, or - and this one is hardest - one can create a whole new story around the songs. That course is the hardest because songs in musicals are generally crafted to advance a coherent story, and songs in a grouping like an album don't typically do anything like that - and these two albums certainly don't.

Jagged Little Pill, the road show of the Broadway musical made from those albums and other assorted Morissette compositions, is holding forth this week at Baltimore's Hippodrome. And its book, written with consummate skill by the brilliant Diablo Cody, bulldozes through this challenge as if it weren't even there. Cody, whose varied movie, television and book-writing credits include the screenplay for Juno, wanted to write in this show about a lot of things that weren't exactly foregrounded in most of the songs, including trans-racial adoption, rape, and drug addiction, and to do it without any character much resembling Morissette's album persona either. What Cody evidently found in the music, however, was a certain attitude: a willingness to articulate grievances, especially in the areas of family or romantic relations, to acknowledge one's own contradictions, and to be honest about emotions, however inconvenient that honesty might be for oneself or others. And as it turns out, Cody was right in her determination that that attitude could be shared by many distinctive characters, at least with a few discreet tweaks to the lyrics.

It would, of course, have been more at war with the lyrics had Cody tried to put them in the mouths of, say, a basically contended sitcom family. But they fit fine in the context of that staple of recent Broadway shows, the outwardly successful but inwardly wretched middle-class family. (Think Next to Normal or Dear Evan Hansen.) Such people love to emote, have the articulacy to do so, and are not unacquainted with the kind of confrontations that make honesty so dramatically interesting.

This unsettled family of two parents and two teenaged kids has a lot to learn to be honest about. At the outset, the family, the mother Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff) is secretly in thrall to opiates and has not yet worked through a deeper, darker secret in her past, the father Steve (Chris Hoch) is distracted from her by crushing work demands and by his wife's issues and by his own form of thralldom (to porn), son Nick (Dillon Klena) may have just been accepted to Harvard but is buckling under the pressures to be a high-achieving high schooler, and daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel), being adopted and Black, is finding her multiple identities hard to juggle - not to mention those relating to sexual orientation (bisexual) and sexual activity (about which her parents are initially ignorant). Certain things are predictable for this foursome: Mary Jane will hit rock bottom as her need for opiates outruns what she can acquire without serious lawbreaking, the unsustainable work pressures on Steve will create vulnerabilities elsewhere, and the children will, as children do, inevitably pursue their sexual destinies for better and for worse. Then the sequelae of a rape at a high school party where everyone is drunk will envelop not only Nick and Frankie but also unexpectedly their parents. Everyone lands in the mess in one way or another. But we know from the fact that the finale song is "You Learn" that after crisis comes honesty and self-knowledge, and an opportunity to right one's ship.

A plot this crowded, not only with events but also serious issues, would lead any theatergoer to wonder whether the show might be freighted a bit too heavily. Maybe it is, a little, but much less so than one would expect. Again, credit Cody, who intertwines all these tales so that they pull each other along. And further, the difficult issues around the burdens of drug addiction on one's family and around rape in the community of those whose lives are affected by it are sketched out with scarifying honesty. We do get a sort of happy ending, but not with a gratifying round of absolution for everyone. In the complicated interplay of transgression and victimization, and in the face of the realities of life in a patriarchal and heterosexist society, almost everyone ends up wishing they'd deserved and received greater absolution. There reemerges what Morissette calls "common ground," but everyone remains a work in progress.

And it is still enough to send the audience out with eyes shining. It's earned.

The script and the songs get nearly the staging they deserve. The performers are uniformly splendid, and director Diane Paulus, who brought this show along from its initial staging, has obviously kept her hand in. The choreography, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is also outstanding, impressing me particularly by making striking use of the device of doubling a character so that the actor portraying the character is able to do one thing and a dancer (dressed and coiffed identically) simultaneously proclaims that character's inner struggle or remembered experiences. (See the production photo above.) And if you're coming to the show on the basis of your familiarity with the songs, you will not be disappointed, even though a wide variety of characters are singing them. They are just as good sung by voices different from Morissette's.

My problems mainly revolve around the sound design, and specifically with one issue which tends to crop up in every house everywhere that doesn't have a Broadway-level sound system and Broadway-level talent experienced in the sound dynamics of this particular house running it - which is to say most houses when the company playing there is on tour (as is perhaps always the case at the Hippodrome). When music gets sung too loud, particularly when sung by too many voices, the listener's ear has trouble interpreting the words. A common mistake is to do this very thing to signal and intensify the climax of a song. In this production, the mistake keeps being made again and again. Morissette's compositions tend to end in big crescendos as she drives home one jagged little point or another. This show often seeks to underline the crescendos through a chorus belting at rock concert volume. (When you see the curtains parting at the back of the set, which they too predictably do at the end of the songs to let in the ensemble, you know you're in for it.) And to complete the sensory overload, often the lights are turned up way too high. But these are songs originally written to be delivered by one voice. It might be better for the creative team to bear this fact in mind. Less of the chorus (or at least less amplication of the chorus) would surely be a case of less being more, in this case, more intelligibility.

While this is a major flaw, it does not kneecap the show; it just takes one's enjoyment of this ingenious work down a notch. It is still a must-see, going quite soon. Catch it before it does.

Jagged Little Pill, lyrics by Alanis Morissette, music by Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard, book by Diablo Cody, directed by Diane Paulus, presented through December 18, 2022 at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $49-$167.50 at Adult language, drug use, sexual violence and sexual situations.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.


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