All You Really Want

THEATER REVIEW: Jagged Little Pill
American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, June 27, 2018

I have the feeling Jagged Little Pill has a long future in store.


The new musical, directed by Diane Paulus, isn’t content just to give us nineties nostalgia. The creators reexamine Alanis Morissette’s hyper-popular 1995 album to fit the issues facing us today. Start checking them off; they’re all here, from coming out to opiate addiction to sexual assault. It’s a lot for one show to attempt, and the writing doesn’t always prioritize story over message. But we realize how character-driven Morissette’s songwriting has always been. Her work is so personal and confessional that it seems to belong here on the musical stage.

Unlike most jukebox musicals, Jagged Little Pill has a lot to say. The songs (by Morissette and Glen Ballard) come off well because they closely to their original style; “You Oughta Know” hasn’t gotten any less angry. This music, the early work of an artist with so much to express, runs the spectrum from bruised to defiant, romantic at times, depressive at others. It belongs to that age group: when we were kids who listened to Alanis nonstop on the radio, and the youth today who can still relate to the album’s raw, exposed nerves.

I can see musical theater kids embracing this as their new Spring Awakening or Rent. And that’s the audience it’s meant for the most. Diablo Cody’s book has the feel of an after-school special, cataloging all the challenges kids and their parents face (at least in suburban Connecticut). Though everything is handled sensitively, Jagged Little Pill often is more concerned with attitudes than people. It’s more of a conceptual piece about a community, a sociological study trying to understand a “normal” (whatever that is) nuclear family. The songs are what allows everyone to express what they’ve kept bottled up. 

Our main family, the Healys, each portray a familiar type: Mary Jane, the unraveling tiger mom; Steve, the dad who never leaves the office; Nick, the all-star son with a secret; Frankie, the adopted daughter who feels out of place. These broadly etched characters are the springboard to probe what it means to face the unknown. How do you help when your parents, children, friends are in pain?

Elizabeth Stanley, as overachiever Mary Jane who’s hooked on pain meds, could be a surrogate for present-day mom Alanis. Stanley is excellent at portraying Mary Jane’s slipping consciousness, as her addiction slowly consumes her perfect life, and waking up to her own biases. Celia Gooding plays Frankie with the right mix of confidence and naivete. Kathryn Gallagher handles a tough part well, when her character Bella reveals she was raped by a classmate. The standout, hands-down, is Lauren Patten’s non-binary character Jo, in a rage-filled, show-stopping take on “You Oughta Know.”

The pieces of the A.R.T. production are constantly in motion, from the projections (overused) to the twitchy choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. All of these elements come together in two new songs Morissette and Ballard wrote. The first, “Smiling,” follows Mary Jane’s day in reverse, the choreography moving backwards, as she tries to figure out how she’s arrived at the precipice of addiction. In the second, “Predator,” Bella relives her assault, watching another dancer replace her in a out-of-body reenactment of that night. It’s an unforgettable image that lingers beyond the show’s more didactic dialogue.

I bet Jagged Little Pill becomes a big hit on Broadway. With the excellent singing and high-voltage energy on stage, the show becomes a cathartic experience. Sharper character insight would help, but hey, maybe it’s OK if everything isn’t all figured out just yet.

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