Review: Jagged Little Pill at Blumenthal PAC
By Perry Tannenbaum
Overamped opening nights seem to be a tradition at Belk Theater when Broadway tours hit town, but this week’s JAGGED LITTLE PILL set a new standard, catapulting me out of my seat with the first words of the pre-show announcement – before the onstage band launched into the overture. Things quieted down mercifully after sound levels peaked at 103dB just before intermission, but despite an early lull, Act 2 peaked a couple of times at 104dB as the Alanis Morissette musical climaxed.
Diablo Cody’s stage adaptation of Morissette’s breakthrough Grammy Award album meshes well with those teen-anguished songs and the Belk’s high decibels. Sporting a fresh overload of angst and suffering unimagined by Morissette in 1995, Cody’s book shuttles between three plotlines and eight characters for most of the evening, ostensibly linked by the normal, successful, and well-adjusted Healy family, represented in each of the three stories – and not nearly as happy or well-adjusted as they appear.
The somewhat disjointed stories are neatly bookended by Christmas letters that sunny matriarch Mary Jane Healy reads to us from her living room. Her first letter, prior to the humility and honesty she will learn during the coming year, whitewashes the Healy family’s struggles, discomforts, and resentments for public consumption. Mary Jane is not truly healing from her car accident earlier in the year with the wholesome aid of herbal essences or natural medicines: she is hooked on prescription Oxycodone and will soon be seeking out the neighborhood drug dealer when her doctors and pharmacist cut off her supply.
Meanwhile, all is not bliss in the Healy marriage, because husband Steve is working 60 hours at an unfulfilling job, spurned by his pill-popping wife in bed, and turning to porn for solace.
MJ can be justifiably proud of her kids, whom Steve has done more to support than to father. Nick, the eldest, has just earned early admission into Harvard, a fabulous achievement he is not as excited about as his parents. Like his exemplary mom, he feels the pressure to be perfect – and remain the best thing she’s ever done.
Bisexual and African-American in a lily-white Connecticut town, young Frankie is obviously an adopted child, yet she remains the most normal of the Healys despite the dogged colorblindness of her parents, her brother, and her community. She already has a girlfriend that she’s keeping secret from her family, and just before Christmas break, Frankie attracts a new boyfriend in their creative writing class.
Frankie is an earnest rebel at first, in search of a cause. Her social consciousness leads her to spearhead a campaign to give out free tampons at her high school. The protest placards we see in Act 1 can be pretty droll.
Amid this underwhelming welter of decadence and angst, it’s the jilted girlfriend, Jo, who has the best reasons to feel aggrieved, upstaging the Healys and torching some choice vocals. Condemned by her Evangelical mom for her sexuality, obliged to keep her relationship a secret from Frankie’s parents, and thrown over for this upstart Phoenix guy just because he defends her writing in class, Jo is the twitchiest and most upset in her set. Topping all that, Jo is dragged to a Christmas Eve service by her pious mom while Phoenix puts his moves on Frankie at the school party.
All of these indignities set Jo afire amid this otherwise humdrum scenario. What sets it all ablaze is the febrile stage direction of Diane Paulus and the trembling all-shook-up movement and choreography of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Every surreal sight and unmotivated tremor is further whipped to a frenzy by Morisette’s music and the overamped vocalists, often unintelligible in their cries and wails. Unless you’re moving furniture to the wings, no member of this cast makes an exit without a hugely melodramatic gesture of anger or frustration.
For all the Morissette fanatics who filled the Belk to its topmost balcony, all this excess, performed with gusto and bravura, was nirvana. You would have thought, with a title like Jagged Little Pill and all the enthusiasm greeting it, that we were watching a devastating denunciation of adult hypocrisy, rampant drug culture, industrial greed, and the onset of environmental catastrophe rather than much ado about nothing.
Until the Christmas party. This is where Cody finds a dramatic core to her script and adds two key dramatis personae, a rapist and his victim. As a result, Nick proves to be very imperfect, disagreeing with both his sister and MJ in his initial reactions to the assault. After meeting with Bella, the rape victim, Frankie now has a substantial cause to crusade for. Nick must decide whether to break with his rich best friend, Andrew, who perpetrated the rape and snapped the humiliating photos that are being texted during the Christmas break.
Wishing to protect her son’s future, MJ sides against Frankie, but her impregnable pill-fed armor begins to crack. She will begin some long overdue introspection and face up to her past. Poof, Cody’s chimerical soufflé of universal discontent will mostly deflate before MJ composes her next Christmas card.
Duke grad Heidi Blickenstaff shows us how – and why – she won the lead role of Mary Jane on Broadway after the COVID hiatus, bringing us an affecting mix of maternal warmth, diligence, cluelessness, and neurosis. Paired with Chris Hoch as a decidedly corporate-looking Steve, Blickenstaff as MJ struck me at times as somewhat surreal delving with her partner into the marrow of Morissette’s songbook.
Here the wildly enthusiastic audience was helpful in reminding me that the Healy parents, though clearly older than the 19-year-old or 20-something who wrote most of their lyrics, are younger than Morissette is now – like so many of us in the roaring crowd listening to their anguish. And it’s also helpful that they both yearn so earnestly to recapture and redeem their past.
Dillon Klena and Lauren Chanel are marvelously mismatched as the siblings, Chanel as Frankie making the abrupt voyage from Connecticut to Greenwich Village in an effortless manner hard to imagine for Klena as the preppy elder brother. Both of these sustained presences, especially Nick, are upstaged by the more seriously aggrieved teens, Jade McLeod as the raffish Jo and Allison Sheppard as the flirtatious Bella.
McLeod pours their renegade voltage into two of Jo’s prime cuts from Little Pill, “Hand in My Pocket” and “You Oughta Know,” as well as the subsequently revealed phantom cut from that album, “Your House,” when they reveal their nasty side. Underscoring the best craftsmanship that went into updating the Morissette playlist with fresh #MeToo flavoring, Sheppard draws two new songs. “Predator” was released by Alanis as a single in 2021, two years after the JAGGED LITTLE PILL cast album came out, and she has never recorded “No,” an overtly didactic song penned by Guy Sigsworth.
Sheppard makes both of these late additions fit seamlessly into the musical as she grabs much of the spotlight after intermission. But she’s also fine in Bella’s first interactions with Frankie and Jo, accepting her victimhood with a nicely calibrated reluctance.
My suspicion is that while Bella ascended in prominence as this musical’s creative team tinkered with their handiwork, Phoenix and Andrew lost ground. Jason Goldstein as Andrew hardly utters a word, let alone sings one, after giving our story so much impetus by raping and humiliating Bella. If only the evildoers in our politics could be so totally silenced and ignored!
Perhaps Cody should be tossed from her scriptwriters’ union for neglecting her villain, but I felt we suffered more from the hasty dispatch of Rishi Golani as Phoenix. Golani shines in “Ironic,” his classroom duet with Chanel, and subsequently serves charmingly as the mellow edge of Frankie’s love triangle in “That Would Be Good,” sharply contrasting with the belligerent McLeod.
After fleeing from Frankie’s bedroom, we never really see Golani as the genial Phoenix again. Cody offers us a rather flimsy pretext for the cooldown in their relationship before Golani even gets a chance to weigh in on what happened to Bella. Surely, it’s the talk of the school – and the town, once Bella hits the police station.
So MJ’s valedictory Christmas letter gives us the illusion that all loose ends have been addressed, and Cody ultimately packages Morissette’s hits with the best giftwrap a jukebox musical has gotten since Mamma Mia. It’s more than enough to satisfy Alanis fandom, and it’s a forward-looking attempt that bodes well for a more woke future up on Broadway.