Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at National Theatre

The National Tour stops in DC through March 26th

By: Mar. 20, 2023
Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at National Theatre
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It's a jagged, not-so-little show...and it's a lot to swallow.

Jagged Little Pill, the jukebox musical based on Alanis Morissette's seminal album of the same name, opened on March 14th at Broadway at The National, and runs through March 26th.

Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at National Theatre
Chris Hoch and Heidi Blickenstaff
of the North American Tour of
Photos by Matthew Murphy, Evan
Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022.

For those not familiar with the show, it follows a year in the life of the Healy family, a seemingly perfect blended family in suburban Connecticut. But all is not as it appears. Family matriarch Mary Jane struggles to maintain a flawless facade, but the aftereffects of a car accident have left her addicted to opioid painkillers and estranged from her husband Steve, who fills the void in their marriage with an online porn addiction. Eldest son and star student Nick has spent his life being the good son, always focused on the expectations of others; now, on the cusp of adulthood, he suddenly realizes he has no self identity. Adopted, African American daughter Frankie tries to navigate the shifting sands of her identity - racial, sexual, and ideological - she identifies as bisexual, has a lesbian girlfriend, and falls in love with a boy. And she finds a new cause to protest for on a daily basis.

Throw in a rape at a party filled with teenage drinking, a little white privilege and elitism, systemic racism, MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and just about every other triggering hot button issue of the last twenty years, and it's a lot to unpack. And that's before the thirteen songs from the Jagged Little Pill album (and a dozen new songs written for the show by Morissette) are shoehorned into the Tony award-winning book by Diablo Cody.

Therein lies the problem. The show tries too hard, and can't figure out what it wants to be: is it a jukebox musical? A play with music that deals with socially relevant contemporary issues? (Cody's book is filled with great dialogue and strong themes. Stripped of the music, focused more tightly on Mary Jane's struggle with addiction and how that impacts all of her family, it would be a powerful work about familial dysfunction, on par with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And absent the need to have a traditional, musical theatre happy ending, it would have allowed Cody to explore different endings for the piece.) Similarly, Morissette's music speaks for itself, and a more autobiographical take would make for a great jukebox musical in the mold of TINA - The Tina Turner Musical. (There are moments when the creative team have chosen to punctuate the more powerful anthems with blaringly bring lights and concert-style lighting effects like chases, which further confuses the concept.)

As it stands, the show is a bit of a muddle: part play, part musical, part Broadway-meets-Alanis-Morissette-cover-band. Some of it works, some of it doesn't.

Here's the good, the bad, and the rest:

The Good

Any discussion of what's stellar about this national tour starts and ends with the performance that Broadway megastar Heidi Blickenstaff delivers as Mary Jane. (She also played the role on Broadway.) This production showcases all of her singing and acting talents, and offers a rare chance to see a polished, veteran Broadway star, at the top of her game, in a role that takes full advantage of her incredible skills. Blickenstaff drives the show, without turning it into a star vehicle, and she elevates the performance of everyone else on stage. Her emotional range is truly remarkable, and her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at National Theatre
Laruen Chanel and Jade McLeod of the
North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL.

Newcomer Lauren Chanel is a young performer to watch, and she turns in a fine performance as Frankie. Likewise, Jade McLeod shines at Jo, Frankie's female love interest. McLeod is featured on several of the most popular numbers from the original album (most notably Hand in My Pocket, and You Oughta Know) and they have a powerful voice that strongly resembles Morissette's.

Given that female empowerment is one of the overarching themes of the show, the male characters don't seem to be as fully formed and deeply plumbed as the strong female characters; nevertheless, Chris Hoch and Dillon Klena round out the family nicely as father and son, and each has noteworthy moments in the show.

Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at National Theatre
Heidi Blickenstaff and Jena VanElslander of the
North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL.

Special mention must be given to ensemble member Jena VanElslander, for the scene she shares with Blickenstaff. As Mary Jane wrestles with controlling her addiction, VanElslander, dressed identically to MJ, represents an inner demon. Throughout the number she and Blickenstaff interweave physically and musically, stalking each other and slithering over and around a couch (and the surrounding floor), in a fluid, flowing interplay that really must be seen to be appreciated. It's a powerful and moving moment in the show that is a perfect blend of music and movement, and it brings the second act into sharp focus.

The show's choreography is also a strength, and the ensemble shines here. It's a blend of interpretive movement, grunge, and hip hop moves, and very much mimics Morissette's own performing style. If you've ever seen her in concert, she stalks from one side of the stage to the other, and a lot of the movement in the show evokes the same feeling as one of her concerts.

Review: JAGGED LITTLE PILL at National Theatre
Dillon Klena and company of the
North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL.

The production's staging is also noteworthy, for the overall pacing and flow of the show. As with most contemporary productions it relies heavily on projection screens and minimalist set pieces, but with a unique and interesting twist. Absent an actual turntable on the stage, almost all of the set pieces are on wheels, and director Diane Paulus often keeps them moving during scenes - pieces rotate on their own individual axes, while the entire scene spins and set pieces change positions. It's a clever blocking device, but it's a bit overused - by the middle of the second act, my brain was screaming, "Just stand still and sing, already!"

The Bad

As noted above, there's a lot going on in this show, and it's loonnnnng. At a time when many musicals are 90 minutes, with no intermission, this puppy clocks in at a full two and a half hours, including intermission. Jagged Little Pill is a throwback to the Golden Age of Musicals, when audiences expected that much musical for their fifteen bucks.

The length wouldn't be as problematic if the show wasn't exceedingly dark and heavy. Despite neatly wrapping up all the loose ends into a semi-happy ending in the last 5 minutes of the show (and sending the audience home with a rousing version of You Learn ringing in their ears), this show should be sponsored by Prozac. There's a lot of depression, anger, frustration, rage, fear, and loathing to wade through to get to the payoff. And angst. So much angst.

For some it may feel cathartic; for others, not so much.

And then there's the music. If you're a hardcore Alanis fans, it's a buffet. If you're a more casual fan, mostly familiar with the songs that got heavy airplay from the original album, you'll find yourself thinking, "Didn't we just hear this song?" about halfway through the second act. There's a gray, monochromatic ennui created by too many numbers with the same feel, delivery, and tempo.

The Rest

Jagged Little Pill provides an interesting template for taking the jukebox musical in a new direction. It shouldn't even really be called a "jukebox musical" - it would be more appropriate to call it an "artist driven/focused musical." How succeeding musicals will learn from this, build on it, and improve it, will be fascinating to watch. If you like contemplating the evolution of theatre, seeing this show will definitely make you think.

Bottom line: Even though it may try too hard, there's a lot of great theatre and music to be experienced in Jagged Little Pill. And it may be quite some time before DC audiences get a chance to see the kind of raw emotion and powerful acting and singing that Heidi Blickenstaff brings to the stage in this production. The show itself may leave you with mixed emotions, but there's no mistaking the excellence of her performance.

Jagged Little Pill runs through March 26th. Running time is 2:30 with one intermission.

For more information about Broadway at The National, click here.


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