Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at Providence Performing Arts Center

Stellar national tour brings Morisette's music to life at PPAC.

By: Jan. 19, 2023
Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at Providence Performing Arts Center
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On the delayed opening night of "jagged little pill" in Providence, the audience at PPAC was singing along, pumping their fists in the air, and roaring with delight throughout the Tony Award-winning musical's 2.5 hour runtime. Fans of Alanis Morissette's smash 1995 album -- and even those who may, somehow, be unfamiliar -- will find this a powerful, moving production, superbly crafted and full of top-notch performances. Technical issues pushed the PPAC opening back by a day, but on the night this reviewer saw the show, everything worked flawlessly.

Originally produced in 2018 at American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), the show had a successful run on Broadway, picking up two Tony Awards (Book and Best Supporting Actress) before kicking off the national tour last September. Unlike many jukebox musicals, Morisette's music feels character-based and integral to the plot (testament to the Tony-winning book by Diablo Cody and musical arrangements by Tom Kitt.) It's all the songs you remember from the album and a few new ones, all beautifully delivered and staged, with dazzling hip-hop-inflected choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Morisette's dense, trenchant lyrics are used to excavate the angst lurking beneath the surface of a "perfect" Connecticut family. We meet opioid-popping supermom Mary Jane Healy (played with devastating perfection by Heidi Blickenstaff, reprising her Broadway appearance), her workaholic porn-addict husband Steve (Chris Hoch) and their kids: Ivy-bound senior Nick (Dillon Klena) and adopted Black teenage daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel). Nick struggles with ethical blind spots and Frankie explores their racial and gender identity while hiding, like their parents, behind the walls of their impeccable suburban house (and those each has created around themselves.) Rounding out the principals are Jo (Jade McLeod, whose rendition of "You Oughta Know" is a breathtaking showstopper) and Nick's classmate Bella (Allison Sheppard, in a devastating turn). The ensemble -- who populate the scenes as students, housewives, protesters, and dancers -- are uniformly excellent. Rishi Golani steps out of the chorus with a fine performance as Phoenix, Frankie's emerging love interest.

That last deserves a bit of explanation. Those familiar with the show's history will know that audiences of the original incarnation at A.R.T. (like this reviewer) saw a relationship between Frankie and Jo that strongly suggested Jo's character was nonbinary. This created a real depth, and made their delivery of "You Oughta Know" a poignant cri de coeur. Between Boston and Broadway, revisions to the book sanded down Jo's character in ways that made the relationship less nuanced and pulled punches. Moments like when Jo responds to being deadnamed by saying "Don't call me Joanne. I'm not a fabric store" or their encounter with Frankie's new boyfriend Phoenix seem to be played for laughs. There are complexities that go beyond the scope of a review here, but the changes -- and the controversy they stirred -- are relevant context. None of this is meant to detract from the work the actors do. McLeod's Jo is vibrantly realized, and their chemistry with Chanel is electric and captivating.

As is Blickenstaff in the role of Mary Jane. Every moment she is on stage is riveting. Her vocal style is commanding -- bigger, beltier than Elizabeth Stanley, who originated the role, and was a delight. Blickenstaff inhabits this complex character with total confidence, shifting gears effortlessly across the spectrum from Tiger Mom to desperate addict. It's a challenging part. In less sure hands, this could easily come across as an "afterschool special" parent, but that's never a danger here. Blickenstaff's imperfectly-concealed vulnerability prevents any descent into stereotype. It's a bravura performance.

Diane Paulus's direction is simply spectacular. One sequence -- for reasons that absolutely work dramatically -- is literally played backward; it was a knockout effect at A.R.T. and still amazes. The Act I closing number, in a church that assembles itself from a few digital screens, a handful of pews, and a rack of votive candles is stunning. Electronic pieces slide in and out to provide a robust diversity for the set, with video designer Lucy Mackinnon's work powerfully complemented by Riccardo Hernández's sets and Justin Townsend's crisp, effective lighting.

If there could be any complaint about this production, it is the sound. PPAC is a complicated venue, with cavernous, echoey plaster surfaces, and getting the audio just right is tricky. It was hard to hear some of the lyrics, and the percussion was a bit too far forward in the mix. But that's a minor quibble.

This is a rare show: a jukebox musical that feels organic; a "message" show that foregrounds authentic characters. Much of the credit goes to the excellent cast, who are intensely right there in the moment, at every moment. It's a powerful theatrical experience, a visual delight, and you absolutely will leave the theater singing. Go see it.

"jagged little pill," directed by Diane Paulus. Providence Performing Arts Center, Tuesday, 1/17 through Sunday, 1/22. Tickets ($38-$99) at the box office (220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI), by phone at 401.421.2787, or by visiting Box office window and phone hours are Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm, Saturday, 10am to 2pm and two hours prior to curtain time(s) on show days. The show features flashing lights, and deals with mature themes: sexual violence, drug use, and strong language.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.