New York City Theater
"Jagged Little Pill"
No one just walks in “Jagged Little Pill,” the fiery, busy new musical based on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 recording. Mostly angrily, they twist and turn, writhe on the floor, even walk backwards as hurriedly as they do forwards. The rag-tag ensemble’s frantic perambulations, as devised by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s movement and choreography, indelibly reflect the anxiety and rebelliousness of youth.
Morissette’s pinpoint lyrics, along with the infectious music she co-wrote with Glen Ballard, outweigh Diablo Cody’s barely connective musical. But director Diane Paulus beefs up the tales of a pill-poppin’ mom and a date-raped teen named Bella (Kathryn Gallagher in a poignant turn). It’s a rousing piece at times but so engorged, it’s unyieldingly restless (even Riccardo Hernandez’s scenery is non-stop) and, at its heart, despite its passion, cold.
Beginning with what appears to be a perfectly happy family – smiling parents, Harvard-headed son, attractive adopted daughter – it soon devolves into an examination of the troubled foursome. Daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) is bisexual, son Nick (Derek Klena) is morally confused, dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill) works overtime and is emotionally estranged from mom Mary Jane (the fervent Elizabeth Stanley), who pops more pills than an opioid addict. Strike that. She is an addict, even buying drugs off the street when her prescriptions run out.
Comparisons with “Next to Normal,” even “Dear Evan Hansen” are not far-fetched. But, unlike those musicals about neurotic, haunted characters, “Jagged Little Pill” becomes something else entirely when it turns to a #MeToo protest rally, complete with placards (“Teach Consent,” “Tell Your Story,” “Stand Up, Don’t Stand By,” etc.).
That rally, dear friends, is a doozy, a contemporary wail of hurt. When the cast, holding its signs, advances to the edge of the stage, the audience feels more than confronted. It’s an assault, a moment of such anger that practically bids theatergoers to grab one of the signs and march out to Times Square.
What mom has to do with all that is tenuous. More, the show’s power and importance are stimulated by our own discomfort and rage about #MeToo.
It’s when the show finds pockets of involving truths that the story is at its best, engendering such lines as “I have this theory that happy families only exist in orange juice commercials and Utah.” A plot highlight is the aborted lesbian romance between Frankie and Jo, leading to Jo’s (Lauren Patten) show-stopping “You Oughta Know,” earning a mid-performance standing ovation. It’s followed by what might be a demented hymn to St. Vitus, “Uninvited,” where Mary Jane and her doppelgänger go over the top.
Demonic and angsty, “Jagged Little Pill” is a dose of medicine for our disastrous times. That it ends on a positive note is hopeful but cannot erase intimations of doom and damnation.
--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 31, 2020