A jukebox musical featuring the angsty but sometimes poetic music of Alanis Morissette, directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus, and featuring a book by Oscar winner Diablo Cody and a cast of energetic young dancers and several talented singers, may sound cringe-y, but it is more than the sum of its parts.
It's better perhaps that you don't know what to expect coming into Jagged Little Pill, the musical that presents a narrative frame uniting the catalogue of hits and some lesser-known ballads by Alanis Morissette, with new arrangements by Tom Kitt. And all told, besides critics and Alanis die-hards, very few people have seen this show. It had its premiere on Broadway in the fall of 2019 and had a — no doubt frustrating for the producers and cast — aborted run due to the pandemic. Running until March 2020, and then attempting to reopen in late 2021 after receiving 15 Tony nominations and two Tony Awards (for Cody's script and for supporting player Lauren Patten), the show ran for less than two weeks post-shutdown, closing after just 36 previews and 171 performances.
It's been recast entirely for its North American tour — and it's opening with a separate cast next month in London — and to some extent, this cast still feels a little green and wobbly, if still plenty polished in their singing. They kicked off the tour last month in Las Vegas after just a couple of shows in Kentucky, and so the real proving grounds only began with a two-week run in Los Angeles that just ended October 2. In an unusual move, the producers asked that the cast have two previews in San Francisco's Golden Gate Theater before reviewing critics could come, and Thursday night's opening performance still showed a few of the seams of a preview. Given the complexities of the music, staging, lighting, and choreography, that kind of stands to reason.
That said, this is a terrific, exuberant, well written and artfully constructed show with lots to recommend it, whether you count yourself a superfan of Morissette or not — though if you hate when her songs come on the radio, it's probably best you stay away.
The rest of the review will contain a few spoilers, so if you'd rather know less than more, stop reading now.
Lest you think that Jagged Little Pill is a show just about teen angst and romance, written by someone who's most famous for a movie about just that, you should know that the anchor character of the show is actually middle-aged mom Mary Jane "MJ" Healy — played by the funny and wry Heidi Blickenstaff, who boasts a powerful, rock-friendly belt that's a good match for Morissette's songs. We learn quickly that MJ is a Connecticut housewife who goes to Soul Cycle and brags about her son who got into Harvard, and who also has a pill addiction that obviously is going to bring her down at some point.
MJ is also mother to Frankie (Lauren Chanel), a Black daughter adopted as an infant when she and husband Steve (Chris Hoch) couldn't conceive a second time. Son Nick (Dillon Klena) is an over-achiever golden boy in whose shadow Frankie has always had to live, and Frankie meanwhile is exploring her sexuality with friend Jo (Jade McLeod), and showing the signs of a budding young activist.
The high school plot involves Nick attending a party where his best friend ends up assaulting a girl who's blackout drunk, and Frankie having a whirlwind romance with a new boy in school, Phoenix (Rishi Golani), kind of behind the back of her best friend/first love Jo, who's also in love with her. (The character, played here by a non-binary actor, was originally non-binary in the workshop, but was changed to cisgender and lesbian in the brief Broadway run.)
Each character is significantly better realized, through some well honed dialogue, than the average musical theater character ever is, and that is one of the most satisfying aspects of the show. For every moment where a Morissette song feels, perhaps, a little shoehorned in to the story, there is another where Cody's wit shines through and a character says something surprisingly funny, raw, or deeply believable. Yes, the show teeters a bit on the edge between too-woke and Broadway-sincere. But it works on multiple levels, with Morissette's now two-decade-old oeuvre of confessional alt-pop standing in for the overtly emotional songs that usually underpin musical theater.
The best examples are "That I Would Be Good" — a song that was on a follow-up album to Morissette's breakout Jagged Little Pill — that's sung as a moving trio between Frankie, Phoenix, and Jo; and "Head Over Feet," which becomes a touching ensemble number when sung by the entire principal cast in turn. Morissette's signature breakup ballad, "You Oughtta Know," meanwhile, becomes a barnburner of an 11 o'clock number by a scorned Jo — and actor Jade McLeod has just the rock-and-roll and acting chops to do it justice, as Tony winner Lauren Patten clearly did, likely getting the trophy for this number alone. At last night's performance, it elicited a half standing ovation and lengthy applause from the crowd before the show could go on. (It should be noted that Blickenstaff has plenty of rawly amazing moments as well, and the audience was already on their feet by the time she came out for her final curtain call.)
Paulus's directorial hand typically brings a hefty helping of clever staging, but the most stunning bit comes in Act 1, with a song that is one of two Morissette composed especially for the musical. In "Smiling," MJ is seen encountering friends after spin class, going shopping, and meeting an Oxy dealer in an alley, and the entire sequence is done backwards after we've seen part of it performed forward in real time — with the song providing a circular-sounding backdrop that powerfully evokes the numbing hamster wheel of MJ's addiction.
The ensemble is extremely strong, especially in terms of the contemporary/hip-hop dance they're required to do throughout, and in keeping the constantly changing set moving on and off stage. And this is a show that lives and dies by that ensemble, with many of the numbers becoming group numbers before long — the energy is high, the choreo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is intense, and it makes for something pleasurable to watch from start to finish.
If things were momentarily pitchy, or a lighting cue seemed a little slow, these seemed to be forgivable sins to me and nothing to wince at. And chances are most of that will be smoothed out within a week or two — though this cast will be moving on to Seattle in pretty short order. So, if you loved Dear Evan Hansen, chances are you will love this too — it's a lot like that show, but more female-centric and more dance-y, and the issues it addresses are actually a bit more urgent and timely.
But you'd better at least kind of like Alanis!
'Jagged Little Pill' plays through November 6 at the Golden Gate Theater. Find tickets here.