Review: Angst, anguish and Alanis. How ‘Jagged Little Pill’ plays at the Pantages
As a singer and songwriter, Alanis Morissette has one of the most distinctive voices in rock ’n’ roll. Her raw, quirky, brainy lyrics, idiosyncratic diction and powerfully expressive range mean that nobody in the universe sings quite like her. But if you subscribe to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there’s another universe somewhere in which everybody — whether teen, adult, male, female or nonbinary — sings just like Alanis Morissette.
“Jagged Little Pill,” the Tony-winning musical inspired by Morissette’s art, which opened Wednesday at the Hollywood Pantages, invites Angelenos to visit this universe. Fans find themselves in a fictional Connecticut town populated by characters whose emotional lexicon is made up of 22 selections from Morissette’s catalog: the 13 songs from her 10-times-platinum 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill,” supplemented by some later hits, a handful of deep cuts and three bespoke additions. In their performances these characters adhere faithfully to Morissette’s beloved vocal idiosyncrasies. They croon, rasp, whisper, wail, belt and scream; they do that yodelly gulping thing. They give the “BAY-bay” at the end of their phrases a bratty flourish.
Morissette doesn’t sing her own stuff in this world, even as a character, because “Jagged Little Pill” is not a bio-musical — that opportunistic offspring of the jukebox musical (e.g., “The Donna Summer Musical”), which has become a reliable Broadway profit machine in recent years. Morissette is a famously confessional writer, said to have taken the lyrics for her breakthrough album straight out of her diary. I think her bio-musical would have been a really good one.
But Morissette and her collaborators — longtime songwriting partner Glen Ballard, book writer Diablo Cody and director Diane Paulus — are after something different in “Jagged Little Pill.” They’ve come to hold up a mirror to primarily white, suburban America, revealing — in case we missed all the memos — that our most cherished values are founded on lies, delusions and denial. They put their fictional characters through traumas and dramatize their resulting anguish through earnestly staged set pieces that occasionally seem over the top. (We can understand that rape is traumatic even without watching a slo-mo reenactment of one.)
“Jagged Little Pill” is a bold musical for #MeToo times. Says Morissette: “I’ve had this experience ... and I’m not afraid of talking about it.”
As the tragedies accumulated midshow, I started to feel a little browbeaten by the cast. Every few minutes, it seemed, they were forming a phalanx across the stage to belt at me, channeling the angst of teenagers everywhere into a wordless yawp. (There were words, of course, but I couldn’t always hear them or make them out. The sound seemed muddy on opening night; it may improve over the run.) The choreography, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a kind of controlled flailing, is athletic and challenging and also a touch condescending, as if the audience wouldn’t remember that teenagers sometimes have bulimia — one of the few problems not addressed by the plot — if a dancer didn’t pop up to act out a binge and purge.
Fortunately, the show doesn’t leave its characters (or the audience) in extremis but comes back around with a hopeful moral: Facing reality hurts a lot but is the only path to forgiveness. Or, as Alanis puts it more succinctly: “You live, you learn.”
Book writer Cody (“Juno”), clearly the right choice for the job, keeps things from getting too bleak with her deft dialogue and characterization. The everyfamily she has created, the Healys, are troubled in familiar ways but still endearing and witty. We first meet them at their annual Christmas card photo shoot, where mother Mary Jane (the irresistible, hilarious Heidi Blickenstaff) is composing their annual Christmas letter — compulsively puncturing the smug tone common to these missives with acerbic asides.
After grousing fondly about the long hours her husband, Steve (Chris Hoch), has been working, keeping him away from the family, MJ adds brightly, “I’ll tell you one thing Steve has been looking at: hardcore pornography.” (She’s tracking his internet searches.) Their son, Nick (Dillon Klena), has just been admitted to Harvard. “Our dream school — I mean his dream school,” MJ says. She doesn’t notice that Nick is cracking under the pressure to be perfect; he finally breaks down and gets drunk at a party, with awful consequences.
The parents’ focus on Nick also keeps their daughter, Frankie (Lauren Chanel), at a distance. She’s adopted, Black, tentatively bisexual and a fierce feminist and social activist. Her best-friend-with-benefits, Jo, is played here by Jade McLeod, a nonbinary performer cast after a cisgender actor in the Broadway production sparked protests. Although Jo has a rough home life, they’re the sort of old soul who can be relied on to cheer up a glum friend with the jaunty “Hand in My Pocket.”
The Alanis Morissette musical, now at the Pantages, made numerous changes to its script following criticism about how lead character Jo was portrayed.
But when Frankie forgets all about Jo in her infatuation with a charming new boy (Rishi Golani), Jo doesn’t take it lying down: Their blistering rendition of “You Oughta Know” had the audience on its feet before the second chorus.
Two other scenes particularly charmed me. In one, Frankie reads a new poem to her high school writing workshop: It’s actually Morissette’s “Ironic.” Her classmates keep interrupting her to explain why the situations she’s describing — the black fly in the Chardonnay, etc. — aren’t actually ironic. “That’s not irony,” one points out. “That’s just, like, s—.” This tongue-in-cheek exchange made me like Morrissette even better while transporting me to the mid-1990s when my writing workshop friends and I were earnestly making the same points.
The second scene belongs to MJ: While singing “Smiling,” a haunting ballad Morrissette wrote with Michael Farrell for this musical, MJ goes through her daily chores in a painkiller haze, but in reverse, the scenes of her morning re-forming and dissolving around her as she shuffles backwards along her well-worn route. The graceful, meticulous staging is a triumph.
“Jagged Little Pill” didn’t give me as much behind-the-music gossip about Morrissette’s life as I would have liked. (Will she ever tell us if “You Oughta Know” is really about Dave Coulier?) But it still sings in her voice, animated by her talent, courage and ultimately optimistic worldview.
'Jagged Little Pill'
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 2
Tickets: Starting at $39
Contact: (800) 982-2787 or BroadwayInHollywood.com or Ticketmaster.com
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes, with one intermission
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