“Jagged Little Pill,” the jukebox musical with songs by alt-rock star Alanis Morissette, is replete with enough moments of artistic brilliance that the more heavy-handed moments are forgivable.
Half-way into the second act, the character of M.J. performs the song “Smiling,” staged in reverse as we watch M.J. go back through the motions of the previous few scenes. It captures a state of melancholic anxiety in a way only an expertly staged theatrical production can do. Complemented with a revolutionary performance by Heidi Blickenstaff, who manages to oscillate between sardonic, bright, depressed and enraged, it is with this scene that “Jagged Little Pill” finds its footing.
M.J. is your typical suburban mother with your typical suburban family. She has a son bound for Harvard, a workaholic husband and an adopted, Black daughter who’s going through a rebellious stage. M.J. is left home alone a lot of the time, and not long after the play opens, we discover she is two years into an opioid addiction. This desperate situation is pushed to the brink when her son’s friend, Bella (Allison Sheppard), is raped. Her son witnesses the assault and does nothing to stop it. This triggers a long-repressed memory for M.J., which then causes her to spiral.
Meanwhile, her daughter, Frankie (Lauren Chanel), is stuck in a love triangle between her girlfriend Jo (Jade McLeod) and a new boy at school (Rishi Golani). Frankie also doesn’t feel she belongs to the white suburban life she’s been brought up in, saying she thinks M.J. adopted her so she would look “woke.”
Basically, there’s A LOT going.
Where “Jagged Little Pill” struggles, particularly in its second act, is the balancing act. Some development is lost in a few of the interweaving stories, with each angst-filled Morissette song bringing situations almost immediately to the point of confrontation, largely because it feels like that’s all there’s time to do before curtain. When tackling big issues, this short-changing can occasionally come off performative – ironically the very thing Bella accuses her parents of being.
There is an obvious ripped-from-the-headline comparison between the play’s primary story and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings. This section of plot is shocking in its raw, emotional honesty and is the best-tackled of the social problems presented throughout the show.
And no matter what succeeds and what falters, there is always the music. Based on the Morissette album of the same name, every song from the 1995 16-time Platinum release is included in the show, along with tracks from several other albums and two new songs written for the show, which premiered on Broadway in November 2019 and closed in December 2021.
Morissette, along with co-music writer Glen Ballard and book writer Diablo Cody, appeared on stage at the Sept. 14 Los Angeles performance, prompting a standing ovation from the crowd.
“It’s been a wild journey,” Morissette said.
The grand finale song, “You Learn,” manages to tie up the loose ends and leave the characters in a good place. It is, perhaps, a bit too pat, but for a show filled-to-the-brim with internal, pot-boiling conflicts, it works for catharsis.
The Hollywood Pantages Theatre is located at 6223 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets and information, visit broadwayinhollywood.com.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.