Dillon Klena, Heidi Blickenstaff, Chris Hoch, and Lauren Chanel in the North American Tour of Jagged Little Pill, photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022.
What happens when you combine hit songs from Alanis Morissette’s powerful 1995 Jagged Little Pill album with an equally powerful, aching story about a family in crisis? Well, in the case of the musical Jagged Little Pill, onstage now at DPAC, you get a production that perfectly blends the grungy 90s aesthetic and feel with a modern, responsible, and inspiringly honest look at the lengths we’ll go to in order to survive and find meaningful connections in today’s world.
While that may seem like a hefty description, the musical is backed by a powerhouse team that’s more than capable of pulling it off. Morissette, of course, is responsible, along with Glen Ballard, for the music, but the legendary Diablo Cody is behind the book. Plus, there’s also incredible choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and intriguing direction by Diane Paulus.
This melding of talents has created the picture-perfect Healy family, who are at the center of the show. There’s the seemingly indomitable mother, MJ (Heidi Blickenstaff), adopted daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel), bound-for-success son Nick (Dillon Klena), and the family’s patriarch and provider/dad Steve (Chris Hoch). However, as MJ quickly reveals, things are not quite as idyllic as they might look from the outside.
MJ’s reliance on pain pills, as well as hidden, past trauma has her slowly unraveling. Couple this with the problems in her marriage and the unspoken pressures and struggles her children face, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s a lot to unpack here. Thankfully, the punchy, darkly humorous script is up for the challenge. As its characters tackle their issues, their relationships, and their desperate quest for authenticity, viewers become fully enmeshed in their world. Not a single character lacks depth, realization, or believability. Instead, each one elicits sympathy and beckons viewers to take a closer look at themselves and the important connections and conversations they’ve been neglecting.
Almost every emotional moment (and there are many) is supported and strengthened by a unique musical choice. Indeed, the entire production is a study in how to cleverly blend familiar song and familiar story to create something totally new and different. Long-time fans of Morissette will walk away with a new take on her lyrics, while newcomers will find a deep appreciation for her poetic, avant-garde style . . . and yet, the musical is not about her, not at all.
Sure, there are some not-so-subtle references to the sexism-based criticisms she faced in her career, but this is much more than a thinly-veiled opportunity to celebrate an artist. It’s a re-imagining, a re-conceptualizing of her music and a scholarly-style look at how the past and present often collide in unexpected ways. Here, MJ represents the “past,” while strong-but-imperfect Frankie beautifully encompasses the present, and all around them are echoes from both eras, as well as a story that asks viewers to examine where they are in their own journeys.
Amazingly, this thoughtful, riveting production has more than just a rich, well thought out story going for it. It also features incredible performers who give rich life to their compelling characters. Reprising her role from the Broadway production, Blickenstaff is incredible at every turn. Her MJ is heartbreaking, bitterly funny, deeply flawed, and powerfully voiced. Her delivery of “Forgiven,” which closes the gut-wrenching first act, is truly unforgettable. Similarly, young Chanel creates a Frankie who pulls at the heartstrings and begs to be seen while, at the same time, inspiring hope and action in every viewer. Additionally, credit must be paid to the endearing Jade McLeod, who portrays Jo, Frankie’s cast-aside friend and lover. Her rendition of “You Oughta Know” rocks and rings with pure power and adds a new layer of anguish to the classic song.
Add all of this to the fact that the choreography is an incredible fusion of dance styles and daring choices一the “couch dance” is guaranteed to live rent-free in your head for years一and you get an undeniably influential experience. Even better, it’s peppered with gorgeous imagery, like the oft-used swing set; soft effects such as falling snow; and innovative staging and direction.
Jagged Little Pill is reminiscent of recent musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal, but it also presents something that’s edgy and evocative in a whole new way. It is, in short, the type of show we need more of. So, do yourself a favor, and don’t miss your chance to drink it all in.
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