Review: A Roughly Hewn ‘Jagged Little Pill’ at the A.R.T.
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, May 25, 2018
As we face the ineluctable barrage of jukebox musicals, a number of things become clear. They don’t automatically need to be awful, as we’ve seen with Jersey Boys and Beautiful. But they generally are awful, in particular the recent Broadway season’s two dismal offerings, Escape to Margaritaville and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
And the upcoming Broadway season offers little hope of relief, with the impending arrival of The Cher Show and Head Over Heels, the latter based on the song output of The Go-Go’s, and the distant rumblings of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and — God, help us all — All Out of Love, based around the musical stylings of Air Supply. (That sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel in the active process of being scraped.)
And then there’s Jagged Little Pill, based, of course, on the same-titled 1995 album by Alanis Morissette, but also including songs from the larger Morissette songbook, as well as some new material. One of the main problems with jukebox shows is that creators are hamstrung by the songbook. If you can’t find a song to dramatize an important dramatic moment in the show, you’re kind of screwed. But the jukebox angle isn’t really the problem with Jagged Little Pill. The songs seem to work perfectly fine in their dramatic context here, at least when the blaring sound system allowed me to understand what the actors were singing about.
The problem is the laudable ambition but scattered execution of Cody’s book. Librettist Diablo Cody and director Dianne Paulus certainly score points for trying for something more than merely a mindless romp on a Greek Island or delineation of the lives and times of the artists involved. Jagged Little Pill takes us to a wealthy bedroom community in southwestern Connecticut, into the troubled lives of Steve and Mary Jane Healy, and their two children, Nick and Frankie Healy. Think Next to Normal, but without the complex characterizations or credible drama.
Steve is addicted to porn, because Mary Jane hasn’t slept with him in over a year. Mary Jane is addicted to opioids, after a car accident that left her dependent on Oxycodone. Nick is the “perfect” son who feels tremendous pressure to maintain that perfection, lest he find his recent acceptance to a top-tier school rescinded. And Frankie is a young African-American woman whom the Healys adopted, and is currently rebelling in the form of taking on intractable social issues, experimenting with her gender fluidity, and rallying around a friend of hers who was sexually assaulted at a recent teenage bacchanal.
Yeah, that’s a lot for one mere show to contain. As a consequence, Cody has written a book with classic tone and focus problems. The show can’t decide if it wants to be a searing domestic drama, a droll comedy of suburban manners, a take-no-prisoners slice of cultural agitprop, or feel-good after-school special. The sheer volume of Cody’s grab-bag of hot-button issues almost assures that her book can’t reasonably do any one of them sufficient justice.
What’s more, it’s really hard to get involved with most of these characters as they are currently written, as there either isn’t enough material for us to get a nuanced sense of who they are, and thus the stakes of their drama don’t feel real, or we do know who they are, and the result isn’t particularly attractive.
The first time in the show when I truly cared about anyone on stage was late in the second act, when Sean Allan Krill, a compelling and sympathetic performer, as Steve Healy sings the Morissette song “Mary Jane” to his wife, who has just met with the consequences of her opioid addiction. Steve was by far the most sympathetic character in the show, in part because of Krill’s layered performance. The only other character who felt even close to real was Mary Jane, played here with fierce conviction and great power by the always stellar Elizabeth Stanley.
I do have to say that Lauren Patten, who plays Frankie’s girlfriend, positively steals the show with her renditions of two of Morissette’s best songs, “Hand in My Pocket” and especially “You Oughta Know,” the latter of which received an extremely rare, and well-deserved, mid-show standing ovation the night I saw the show.
On the other hand, Derek Klena, as the “perfect” son Nick, certainly has a strong singing voice and matinee-idol good looks, but in the numerous times I’ve seen him onstage (Dogfight, Carrie, Anastasia), he’s never quite been able to convincingly put across a genuinely dramatic moment. He simply sings loudly and clenches his fists a lot.
It’s possible that Cody and Paulus will be able to trim Jagged Little Pill down to something genuinely compelling, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must report that the crowd I saw the show with went absolutely crazy for it. But one major liability the creators must address is the unrealistically upbeat denouement. The resolutions to all the various plot lines are ludicrously pat, and the final moments of the show near nauseating in their artificiality. It reminded me of the running joke in South Park, when the episodes end with an ironic “I think we’ve all learned something today” vibe.
Oh, and speaking of irony, I’ll say this much for Cody: she’s found a wonderfully wry way of dealing with the grammatical bugaboo about Morissette’s famously erroneous lyric to the song “Ironic.” You know, the song that’s supposedly about irony but contains not a single example of genuine irony? Ironic, isn’t it?
Jagged Little Pill, presented by the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. Running through July 15, 2018. Book by Diablo Cody; music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard; additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth. Directed by Diane Paulus; choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Kitt; scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez; costume design by Emily Rebholz; lighting design by Justin Townsend; sound design by Jonathan Deans; video/projection design by Finn Ross; music direction by Bryan Perri.
Cast: Elizabeth Stanley, Allan Krill, Celia Gooding, Derek Klena, Lauren Patten, Jane Bruce, John Cardoza, Antonio Cipriano, Kathryn Gallagher, Laurel Harris, Logan Hart, Max Kumangai, Soph Menas, Sean Montgomery, Nora Schell, Whitney Sprayberry, Kei Tsuruharatani, Ebony Williams, Yeman Josiah Brown and Kelsey Orem.
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Cover: Lauren Patten and company in A.R.T.’s ‘Jagged Little Pill;’ photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.