It’s a double Christmas miracle. Broadway has a new star—Lauren Patten—and a jukebox musical that really is different and sets a standard for others to aspire to the same; and one that is as provocatively written as it is beautifully performed.
The neatness of that compliment doesn’t do justice to the charged, confrontational, uncompromising excellence of the American Repertory Theater production of Jagged Little Pill, which opens Thursday night at the Broadhurst Theatre (booking to July 5, 2020).
In no particular order, the show engages its audience intelligently in issues around race, rape, sexuality, consent, identity, opioid addiction, male behavior and responsibility, middle-class competitiveness, the reality of recovery, and how trauma can persist across decades and affect entire families. It deals with a group of people in various states of crisis, and all without shallow sermonizing.
It has real wit and warmth, and is also unflinching. The recurrent thoughts watching Jagged Little Pill are: Oh, they’re going there, and oh, they’re really going there, and wow, they went there and did it so well.
As its title intimates, the musical is principally derived from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 Grammy Award-winning album of the same name. The lyrics are by her, and the music is by Morissette and Glen Ballard. (This week, as well as releasing the new song “Reasons I Drink,” Morissette announced a 31-stop North American tour, to mark the album’s 25th anniversary.)
If you are a Morissette fan, you will be very happy indeed; if you are not, or you just know her well-known songs, the same will hopefully apply. The Pulitzer-winning Tom Kitt is the show’s music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger. The fantastic band is led by conductor Bryan Perri, who also plays keyboard. The music (including hits like “Hand in My Pocket”) and choreography are both stunningly produced.
It is also extremely funny, bitingly so in places and playfully in others, as when company members interrogate the wording of “Ironic,” concluding that much of what is laid out in that song isn’t “ironic” at all.
The book is by Diablo Cody, making a storm-the-barricades Broadway debut, who proves—12 years after writing the Oscar-winning Juno—that she can build characters that feel, in all their faults and bravery, all too real. The same goes for her story, which is both humanly recognizable and magnificently staged and blown up to Broadway-apposite scale and ambition by Tony-winning director Diane Paulus.
Jagged Little Pill does not opt for a ’90s grunge or boho setting, as you might expect from the source material. There are no rock star characters who seem remarkably like Alanis Morissette. The musical centers on the Healy family in present-day upscale suburban Connecticut: mom Mary Jane, or “M.J.” (Elizabeth Stanley), dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill), daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), and son Nick (Derek Klena).
A twinkling Christmas tree is on stage, as Mary Jane composes a seasonal family letter, boasting sunnily of achievements. Riccardo Hernández’s slick scenic design is a series of shifting panels, like a design Jenga, opening up vistas or making them intimate.
This family unit (perfectly costumed by Emily Rebholz) is so insightfully portrayed by the quartet, we know the Healys’ duplicities quickly and the reasons for those duplicities with clarity and depth as the show unfolds. The Healys are struggling to seem, as the Morissette song (here sung by Nick) has it, “perfect,” where the reality is anything but—and the shiny ice beneath all their feet is getting more perilously thin the harder they skate.
Dad works too much, mom is a desperate-getting-more-desperate housewife focused on her son’s entry into a prestigious university and keeping up with the other puffer-clad moms at Soul Cycle. In a scene that is both funny and cringe-inducing, the unthinking moms parade their privilege and ignorance in front of a black barista (Ebony Williams), whose contemptuous silence speaks for our own.
The parents think Frankie is the perfect daughter about to bring the perfect boy home. At that moment we see her fool around with her lesbian buddy Jo (the show’s breakout star, Lauren Patten).
There are many secrets within the Healys’ well-kept walls—as a group they sing “All I Really Want”—the gravest of which is M.J.’s drug addiction, which Cody and Stanley map with excellent sensitivity and painful rawness, from confrontations with a local pharmacist to life-threatening tragedy.
When fellow school pupil Bella (Kathryn Gallagher, excellent in a truly tough part) is raped by Andrew (Logan Hart), testifying to what he saw could cost Nick his prestigious college place.
Frankie, as an activist, is sure of everything and resolutely committed to any number of causes, but she is also lost herself. She is black, her adoptive family is white, and as she makes very clear in both words and singing “Unprodigal Daughter,” nobody seems to have taken account of the years-long dislocation she has felt. Steve and Mary Jane’s growing detachment is set to “So Unsexy.”
While the men are de-centered in the show, they are far from absent or voiceless. Indeed, Cody’s brilliant book means that Jagged Little Pill is generous to a fault to every character. Some critics and audience members may feel it is didactic. For me, it bravely and unapologetically burrows into big issues and then maps the effects of those issues on its characters.
Literal banners are held collectively aloft, around sexual and gender identity—every performer states their chosen pronoun in the program—and issues of consent and sexual assault.
If that seems too “obvious” to some, then lucky them to be immune to the precarious times many others feel they are living in; and how unheard they feel. That a Broadway show is prepared to wear such an emphatic political and cultural message is to be welcomed. Our audience seemed more energized than hectored.
You will not have to wait to the end to stand and applaud. Just wait for Patten to sing “You Oughta Know,” fierce and also tentative as if a detective of her own feelings reaching a damning conclusion, while drenched in red light (designed by Justin Townsend).
What really brought our audience to its feet was not a fabulous rendition of one of Morissette’s most famous songs, but Patten herself, and how we had come to know her character Jo, a lesbian from a hostile family background, a snark always at the ready, and who is in love with Frankie.
Frankie’s bisexuality in and of itself wasn’t the disqualifier in not getting together with Jo (as a more simplistic and insulting show would have played it), it was Frankie’s general self-absorption and other relationship with the sweet Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano). We have already heard the trio sing a gently restrained version of “That I Would Be Good.” When Patten attacks “You Oughta Know” as a furious indictment of so much in Jo’s life and the world around her, we cheer every word.
After that roof-raiser, a breather right? Some calm filler? No way. Then follows a beautiful, wrenching piece of musical ballet—the Olivier Award-winning movement director and choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, deserves more awards—in which the wonderful Stanley and a shadow dancer (the excellent Heather Lang) starkly play out MJ’s addiction at its worst to “Uninvited.”
Cherkaoui also oversees other stunning pieces of movement, one principally involving MJ but involving all members of the brilliant company, as we trace a day of her addiction in reverse and then fast forward, including the mundanity of a family breakfast and scoring drugs from a dealer.
Set to “Smiling,” the actors move backwards as time goes the same way, and then reverse themselves. It is immaculate. Cherkaoui also sensitively and powerfully choreographs Bella’s rape, with Lang shadowing Gallagher to “Predator.” Act One ends with a stunning company staging of “Forgiven,” as snow falls from the rafters.
There are multiple heart-in-mouth moments in Jagged Little Pill, notably between Bella and Mary Jane; they both share something incredibly traumatic in common, but Mary Jane has much to admit and surmount before recognizing that.
How the musical charts the family and friends’ fracture and attempt at healing rings also true rather than neat and tidy, with Steve leading the company singing “Mary Jane” and Bella doing the same with “No.”
The most remarkable thing about Jagged Little Pill is where it takes its Broadway audience to finally, a conclusion that isn’t rosy and resolved, but rather one of honesty and clarity—and a cheer-worthy reconstruction of what a Christmas letter could really sound like (before concluding rightly that Christmas letters are absurd). The show ends with the rousing, company rendition of “You Learn,” but what may echo in your mind is the instruction to “wake up.”