At its best, Jagged Little Pill the musical mines and amplifies themes of the original, which reflect on tangible, emotional drama and invite introspection. At worst, it turns them into a Glee chorus. The mostly-enjoyable jukebox musical built on Alanis Morissette songs and “suburban despair” runs through Sunday at The Paramount Theatre.
For those of us of a certain age, few things will make you feel old faster than realizing Jagged Little Pill is getting close to 30 years old.
Alanis Morissette’s ubiquitous breakout album was one of the first CDs I owned. “Ironic”‘s lack of irony was a hot topic of discussion in the back of the school bus. The disc’s doubly-hidden track (“Your House”) — which you could only hear by first playing an unlisted track (an alternate version of “You Oughta Know”) and then let the disc keep spinning in your Discman before a stirring a cappella voice broke the silence — was just about the coolest find ever.
The album was, and is, iconic for a reason. Where many albums were fluffed up with throw-aways to float a couple singles — the ’90s were biiiiiig on one-hit wonders, and unlike now you pretty much had to buy a whole CD or stand around at a Barnes and Noble listening station to find that out — Jagged Little Pill was stuffed to the gills with talent beyond the best-known radio hits.
What I like most about Jagged Little Pill the musical is that it gets that. Every one of the album’s songs, not just the best-known hits, gets prominent play in the staging. They’re joined by 10 newer tracks, some of them much later, including two that Morissette wrote for the show. But it’s the cuts from that breakout album, plus one from a roughly contemporaneous soundtrack (“Uninvited,” from the late-’90s film City of Angels), that do the heavy lifting.
Morissette’s lyrics, with music by Morissette and Glen Ballard, invite an introspection that pairs well with the narrative and characters that book writer Diablo Cody has crafted around them.
Where the 27-year-old album was part of the coming-of-age story of many of us ’90s kids, the musical looks at a broader generational swath. It digs into the issues faced by today’s teenagers (Gen Z) in an age of ubiquitous social media documentation, burgeoning wokeness, and an increasing push to speak out against injustice even as the pressure to keep your head down and maintain a certain facade remains. And it looks at that same landscape’s impacts on their parents (likely Gen X), as they struggle to keep a grip on their long-held values, productive or not.
Right out of the gate, those topics (and conflicts) pile up fast. Among them: addiction, class, and perception of what an addict “looks like”; rape, sexual assault, male entitlement and violence, and the #metoo movement; trans-racial adoption and “not seeing race”; living up to expectations (pretty much across the board); perfection, college applications, student activism, and establishing and adhering to personal values; sexuality and sexual orientation; and exploration of gender identity, maybe. (The latter is a long-running controversy around the show; as for the current iteration, the character Jo’s journey is left ambiguous as far as I can tell, but Jade McLeod, who plays Jo in the touring production, is non-binary.)
Is it too much at once? I don’t know. Considered individually as loose ends to wind up or survey courses meant to educate, yes, it’s far too much to pile into a show. But taken as a collage, a reminder of all the stuff that teenagers have to navigate long before many of us were confronting these questions of identity, safety, and courage, I think it works well.
And while all that is swirling around, it’s Mary Jane who forms the heart of this musical, the character who’s given the most robust and cohesive narrative, and a journey of decision points and disasters. How will she respond to having her facade crumble? How can she save face when she realizes the upper-middle-class wife and mom who doesn’t “look like” a drug addict is exactly that? And when her values are tested, who is Mama Bear going to be more protective of: Her own perfect son, in whom she is well-pleased? Or a teenage girl whose experience she shares, but who sticking up for might jeopardize her son’s social standing?
In an article published yesterday by People magazine, actor Heidi Blickenstaff, who plays Mary Jane, shared her own experience with childhood sexual assault, as well as her brother’s struggle with addiction, both of which are important in her character’s story on stage. Blickenstaff’s story is a keen reminder that the people writing and performing roles on the stage are humans first and characters second.
Tackling all of the Jagged Little Pill album’s songs (along with the newer tracks) is ambitious, not only because of all the loose ends and emotional drama they require for the narrative, but because they’re vocally unorthodox and challenging. The touring cast is up to the challenge, led by powerhouses Heidi Blickenstaff (as Mary Jane, perfect wife and mother, and denizen of the spin class front row and gossipy coffee shops); Lauren Chanel (as Frankie, Mary Jane’s daughter, a social justice advocate, and queer, Black, trans-racial adoptee); and Jade McLeod (as Jo, Frankie’s best friend, closest companion, and sometimes maybe more).
From there, things both rise and fall pretty dramatically with the staging choices of Broadway veteran director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
At its best, the staging brings new depth to iconic songs. Jade McLeod’s performance of the show-stopper “You Oughta Know,” which got thunderous applause, maintained the song’s righteous fury while adding a twist of simmering concern for the target of that indignance. I wish McLeod had gotten the same room to run with “Your House” (the album’s aforementioned hidden track), one of the most haunting and heartbreaking songs I’ve heard anywhere. Their voice treats it beautifully, but they only get to sing through a snippet, unlike the show’s other tracks.
The haunting and heartbreaking songs belong mostly to Blickenstaff, as Mary Jane. Her rendition of “Forgiven” is gorgeous, and the staging of it in the church, and in her time of desperation, really brings home its themes.
But for me the piece that made the show was “Uninvited” — a song that’s not on Jagged Little Pill, though it is roughly contemporaneous (from the soundtrack for the late-’90s film City of Angels). Its vision and execution is possibly the coolest and probably the creepiest thing I’ve seen on stage: a hollowed-eyed version of Mary Jane, this one played by Jena VanElslander, creeps up on Blickenstaff and begins to overtake her. The figure is a human form of her addiction, and the two do an intense, choreographed battle through the song. It’s made all the more dramatic by immediately following the emotion and hype of “You Oughta Know.” It’s an incredible progression.
And now for the bad points. In some scenes, the staging vision seems intent on killing the moment by drowning out the scene, and the song. To be clear, the ensemble is full of talented performers. But the company is probably twice the size it needs to be, and Paulus & Co. have to figure out what to do with them.
Their answer, apparently, is to have the full ensemble periodically descend on the core characters like a flash mob and dance, flail, and high-kick around. Used sparingly, crowding the stage like that can be an effective device, and it occasionally is used here in that way — conveying a character’s overwhelmed state, for example. More often, it’s a mess: muddling the stage, drowning out the core singers, or turning emotive songs into big-company numbers that’d be more at home on Glee. Unpopular opinion time: I think the Broadway cast album largely sounds like an appalling blend of Jagged Little Pill meets Kidz Bop. While most of the live performance (thankfully) avoids that off-putting exuberance, some of the worst staging moments do drift that way.
Visually, there’s not much new and imaginative on display here. The set design looks fairly uninspired (particularly with projections on panels rolling around, which made for pleasingly efficient scene changes but not much else), and the lighting was periodically blinding, for no apparent reason, with bursts of flood lights.
Despite some misfires, I found myself enjoying the show quite a lot. It’s heartening that new generations are getting a fresh reason to dig into Morissette’s early work. This talented cast gives a great big voice to them, and Blickenstaff’s performance gives her character’s journey a ton of heart — a must for this show. For those moments that really, really work, Jagged Little Pill’s going to be hard to forget.
Broadway Across America’s Jagged Little Pill runs through 11/13 at The Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $57+, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance on 11/13 (matinee), and open-captioned performance on 11/13 (evening); see notes on ticketing page for best accessible seating options.
Run time: 2.5 hours, with intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.