Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at Pantages Theatre Is Outstanding

Morissette, Paulus elevate Jukebox Musical in a big way

By: Sep. 19, 2022
Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at Pantages Theatre Is Outstanding
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Stop me if you've heard some of these songs before. The ever-fertile catalog of jukebox musicals is comprised of everything from legitimate band origin stories to schlocky narratives that are basically an excuse to trot out some band's greatest hits. Still, if you look at the success of efforts like JERSEY BOYS, MAMA MIA, BEAUTIFUL and all their ilk, it becomes clear how much we theat-tuh people also love us some radio-friendly tunes.

As these projects go, the Alanis Morissette-scored JAGGED LITTLE PILL may not have entirely broken the mold, but it has sure put a dagger-sized gash in it and made it bleed. Building on the success of the show's previous runs at American Repertory Theatre (ART) and Broadway, the national tour that is currently blowing the roof off the Pantages Theatre demonstrates why this PILL is easy to swallow. The musical offers a rare blend of a smart book, a dazzling directorial vision, a powerful cast and a technical team, all of which is buoyed by the songs of a musician who, from the age of 21, has a sizeable cultural imprint on a generation of Americans. To the creative forces that united director Diane Paulus, bookwriter Diablo Cody, movement director/choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and composers Morissette and Glen Ballard, a heartfelt Thank U. To anybody reading this, get to the Pantages and see what this mayhem is all about.

JAGGED LITTLE PILL is a story about a seemingly perfect suburban family in Connecticut who are actually in crisis. Mom Mary Jane is a drug addict; dad Steven spends too much time in the office and watches too much internet porn. Son Nick witnesses a rape at a party and has to figure out the right thing to do next. Adopted younger sister, Frankie, who is African American, is exploring her sexual identity and negotiating a strained relationship with her parents. As woke a person as you will find in in this New England community, Frankie - all of 15 years old - organizes rallies around women's rights and social justice.

If it feels like Cody (who captured one of PILL's two Tony awards) has given us a lot to unpack here, indeed she has. In less skilled hands, this might come across as a righteous cause dump. Not here. Fortunately, the characters are aided by a muscular chorus of 13 who weave in and out of the Healey's home, the local school, church or even into the subconscious of the main characters to help underscore a theme or a problem. Cherkaoui, the production's musical director/choreographer and dance captain Claire Crause has this mighty chorus thrashing and slamming away during songs both celebratory and full of rage. Whatever else JAGGED LITTLE PILL might be, it is never quiet.

It doesn't take much searching or lyrical finessing of her existing catalog to make Morissette the anthem-bearer for the personal and social turmoil that this musical is tapping into. The landmark 1995 album, JAGGED LITTLE PILL, produced by Ballard, is the inspiration for Cody's book. In addition to using every track from that album, the musical is also peppered with songs from later in Morissette's career as well as a couple of numbers written directly for the show. Given how iconic and specific Morissette's voice is (especially in the context of that album), it is fascinating to hear some of these lyrics come out of the mouths of people of varying ages, races and genders.

The story opens with Mary Jane (played by Heidi Blickenstaff) composing her family's end-of-the-year holiday card in which we learn, among other things, that Nick (Dillon Klena) has been accepted to Harvard. As Norman Rockwell-esque as MJ makes everything sound to keep up appearances, the family is falling apart. Our first explicit visual of this an amazingly staged number in which MJ experiencing her day backward, trying unsuccessfully to get pharmacy refills, meeting her drug dealer in an alley, shopping at a grocery store, interacting with other suburban moms and ending up back home unpacking her groceries, all to the strains of the song "Smiling." The number is arrestingly staged with eye-popping visuals and it's a sign of great things to come. Paulus and Cherkaoui bookend this remarkable number with the equally dynamic "Uninvited" that finds MJ's bottoming out in the second act in a crazy pas de deux with Jena VanElslander.

Blickenstaff, who took over the role on Broadway, covers MJ's minefield-strewn journey with considerable skill and finesse. As shallow, short-sighted and deeply unlikeable as the character can often be, MJ is also our window into the play's perspective on stasis and middle-age discontent. Messed up thought she is, like the song says she learns, and we're right there with Blickenstaff, rooting her on as she does.

Morissette's songs plug in inventively throughout the production. When they finally get to marriage counseling, MJ and Steve (Chris Hoch) begin the relationship positivity anthem "Head Over Feet," only to hand it off to a gleeful Frankie (Lauren Chanel) and Phoenix (Rishi Goloni), the new boy in her class who seems to get her. The kids play out the number frolicking on a park swing set. The line-up of bummers that make up "Ironic" are the subject of a Frankie's in-school essay; and of course, in a savvy wink to observations from 1995, her too-smug classmates reject the catalog of examples as not being truly ironic by definition.

Every bit the anchor of the story, Frankie is a character teetering between girlhood and womanhood without a lot of guidance. Chanel - who looks like she could be anywhere from 15 to 21 - brings out the conflicted spirit, the rebel and also the moral compass, making it clear why, if her family doesn't drag her down, this person will be going places. Cody has peopled her script with several smart and complicated women, including Nick's classmate Bella (Allison Sheppard), who emerges from a horrific experience at a party to display an enviable strength. Sheppard, a solid actor and singer, does not victimize the character.

Followers of this musical may remember that during the early run of JAGGED LITTLE PILL, a dust-up occurred over the sexual identify of Jo, Frankie's partner before she gets together with Phoenix. Whether Jo (played by Jade McLeod) is cis, non-binary or, as the producers have stated, "on a gender expansive journey without a known outcome," is for others to debate. The character is handed the second act showstopper "You Oughta Know," one of Morrisette's best-known numbers and arguably one of the greatest "F-you" tracks ever written. Alas, it's rendered here with double the musical and technical bombast (notably the punching up of Justin Townsend's lights) of anything else on stage during JAGGED LITTLE PILL. But good luck not getting swept up into the wave.

And that's before all of the characters who have been so miserable come out on the other side. JAGGED LITTLE PILL ultimately concludes on a more upbeat note than one might expect, but amazingly the resolution does not seem false or disingenuous. Ultimately, forgiveness, growth and a new self-awareness can be powerful tools, and anger can give way to something else. If the makers of JAGGED LITTLE PILL can live with this, then we certainly can as well.

Photo of Lauren Chanel and the company of the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.


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