In Jagged Little Pill, a record album gets its own jukebox musical, though there’s none of the Wikipedia-style rat-a-tat biographical highlights (airbrushed or otherwise) that accompanied Donna Summer, The Temptations and all the other post-Jersey Boys superstars on their trips to the stage. With an earnest, ambitious and overwrought year-in-the-life tale of a fictional, stereotypical suburban Connecticut family strapped to the music of Alanis Morissette – particularly the star-making 1995 album that gives the show, opening tonight on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, its title – Jagged Little Pill is a very crowded home to big issues, societal worries, and, oddly enough, storybook outcomes.
But in case anyone needed reminding: Those songs, with Morissette’s blistered lyrics and the irresistible melodies and rhythms (co-written with her producer Glen Ballard) really were pretty great.
Still are, in fact. With Tom Kitt’s attractively amped-up arrangements and performances by an impeccable cast of fine singers (even if they’re too often guided to shout-sing from the lip of the stage), Morissette’s angry, street-poetic dispatches from a fiercely singular artist mostly withstand the out-of-context placement in this troubled-family saga.
And what troubles. Packed to bursting with hot-button issues as bluntly conveyed as the many hand-painted protest signs toted by its idealistic young characters, Jagged Little Pill front-loads its fictional family with enough problems, secrets and cliches to fuel three years of Lifetime movies.
Directed by Diane Paulus with broader, louder strokes than she used for the much superior Waitress, the overstuffed book by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody plays out on Riccardo Hernandez’s attractively suggestive sets (and against Lucy Mackinnon’s realist video projections that provide yet another argument for a separate Tony Award category for this art).
Jagged Little Pill begins with one of those much-derided Christmas letters that put a forced smile on the year just passed. Writing it is soccer mom without the soccer Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley), who shares with friends the accomplishments of her fellow Healys.
Are those letters still in vogue? No matter, the device serves the musical as an efficient introduction to the characters: successful lawyer dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill); high-achieving son Nick (Derek Klena), who has been accepted to Harvard; and adopted daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), whose passion for social justice often has her carrying signs and civil-disturbing the high school she attends with Nick.
Audience members with even a slight storytelling literacy and grasp of cultural tropes will know, before Mary Jane gets to the end of that letter, that the picture-perfect family has a big, ol’ skeleton hanging in a closet (walk-in, no doubt). What some might not expect is that Cody’s impulse toward excess gives each and every Healy a skeleton or two of his or her own, weighting the musical enough issues to leave even the wokest among us dizzy from all the virtues being signaled.
So here goes: Mom is an opioid addict hiding a secret from her past; Dad is a workaholic absentee father who turns to online porn because Mom is interested in nothing but her next score; perfect son Nick is buckling under the weight of all those parental expectations, which has little to do with some troubling behavior later in the show; and adopted Frankie, the sole black member of the Healys, explores her sexuality with gay pal Jo (Lauren Patten) and the sensitive new dreamboat boy Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) while seething with resentment over the ghosting of her racial heritage.
That’s a lot of plot. The opioid crisis, rape culture, sexual identity, racial identity, porn, academic pressure, online bullying, cultural appropriation, interracial adoption, suburban conformity, identity politics, #MeToo, white privilege, frat boy misogyny and SoulCycling, each get a going-over, few getting the deep look and lasting consequence they deserve. There are no surprises here: When Mary Jane asks her dealer whether the new, strange-looking pills are stronger than her usual, we might as well send for the Naxolone.
Like Broadway’s hit musical Moulin Rouge!, Jagged Little Pill offers some enjoyment (and audience applause) in the familiarity of certain songs, whether they fit the storyline or not. “Ironic” is rendered as Frankie’s “essay-poem-story-type thing” school project (with classmates challenging her use of the word, a clever-enough throwback to a common response when the single was released in ’96).
Unafraid to go for the nose, Paulus and Cody place a near-rock-bottom Mary Jane in a church to sing “Forgiven,” complete with votive candles and projected stained glass. “Hand in My Pocket” has the talented Patten, as the boyish, slouchy Jo – possibly doing a sly take on Ellen Page in Cody’s Juno? – dancing the song title, her moves mimicked by an energetic, intrusive, Hair-like tribe of sincere hipsters (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s hip hop interpretive dance choreography doubles as Greek chorus).
The ultimate smash-up of radio hit and stage musical comes, not unexpectedly, with Morissette’s masterwork “You Oughta Know,” given to Jo when she learns that her sometime girlfriend Frankie is more interested in cute new boy Phoenix – she catches them in bed and immediately snitches to the parents – and Patten turns the number into an honest-to-God, standing ovation showstopper. Directed to play that bitter, love-scorned song not so much as a human character but as the embodiment of righteous rage, Patten goes off like an IED, blasting a very thin line between knock-’em-dead power and cringey oversell and doing her damndest to unhitch the song from Uncle Joey once and for all.
Patten, like the rest of the cast, is up for the job, just as Stanley brings compassion and dignity to the pill-popping audience stand-in Mary Jane even as she’s prowling alleyways waiting for her skateboard-riding young dealer.
As Frankie, Gooding (whose real-life mom, LaChanze, is performing nearby in Broadway’s A Christmas Carol), does teenage rebellion well, mostly avoiding the P.C. cartoon she could have been. Father (Krill) and son (Klena) bring more heart to their roles than might seem likely, particularly Klena, who plays Nick’s too-late crisis of conscience (he knows more about a sexual assault than he let’s on) with considerable force.
Also worth singling out in a universally strong cast is Kathryn Gallagher as Nick’s classmate Bella, who, temporarily at least, brings the focus of the many-issued musical to its most powerful note with an exploration of rape culture and the re-victimization of survivors. Bella’s story neatly dovetails with another major storyline, providing the most honestly jagged of the book’s many little pills, involving blind eyes turned and cowardly self-interest.
Still, as harsh as its realities get, Jagged Little Pill, with its we can work it out ethos, doesn’t have the heart to suggest intractable, long-term consequences for its tribulations, moving to the inevitable year-later Christmas letter that contains an improbably tidy ending for the family and all of its skeletons. Jagged Little Pill can’t resist polishing itself and smoothing out every one of its prickly shards, reducing each microcosmic social issue to a future anecdote recalled at the holidays, told by one big happy family.