×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Regional Theater Review: ‘Jagged Little Pill’

With:
Celia Gooding, Elizabeth Stanley, Antonio Cipriano, Kathryn Gallagher, Logan Hart, Derek Klena, Sean Allan Krill, Lauren Patten.

It’s a risky business, making a musical not from a story demanding to be told but from a set of songs merely available to be used. “Jagged Little Pill,” American Repertory Theater’s world premiere based on the 1995 Grammy-winning alt-rock smash, triumphantly avoids the pitfalls. Always engaging, often moving and even rousing, the show boasts dramatic interest and integrity on its own theatrical terms, courtesy of director Diane Paulus (“Waitress,” “Pippin”), first-time librettist Diablo Cody (“Tully,” “Juno”) and that peerless, soulful balladeer of the modern Western condition, Alanis Morissette.

The smash-hit album, written in collaboration with Glen Ballard (also credited here), garnered praise for its suavely blended musical influences and deeply-held personal feelings. It also attracted brickbats from critics objecting to excessive insularity and unseemly anger, but such charges seem baseless now. Heard at a 20+ year remove, the songs of “Jagged Little Pill” impress as sage rather than wantonly ferocious, and prescient in their forthright demands for women’s dignity and emotional agency, now echoed in our Time’s Up era. As a voice of the mainstream, not just misunderstood adolescents alone in bedrooms, the album becomes a fertile source for a broad-based narrative.

Cody proves an inspired provider of its speaking voice. The Oscar-winning author of “Juno” and creator of TV’s “United States of Tara” shares Morissette’s ability to locate the lighter side in the midst of darkness. Cody wields a keen deadpan to mask pain without denying it. When a GF confesses she feels like a tool, the BF reasonably replies, “You just think you’re a tool because you’re trapped in this tool box with all these other tools.” The question “Is that refreshingly self-aware, or just obnoxious?” is rhetorically posed early on, and the answer in a Cody script is always: Neither. It’s just a common-sense way to get through the day with sanity intact.

The self-doubting tool in question is Frankie (Celia Gooding), African American adopted daughter of a white family, the Healys, of Greenport, Conn. She’s wrestling with the desire to write poetry while doubting her gift; experimenting with gender-exploring Jo (Lauren Patten) while attracted to the town’s new boy (darkly romantic Antonio Cipriano); and developing a passion for progressive politics minus the means to get anything important done. Above all, her well-meaning, liberal parents, community pillars, are incapable of relating to their daughter’s questioning spirit and difficulty “fitting in,” whatever that might mean.

But the parents’ road is rocky too. Tiger mom Mary Jane (splendidly energized Elizabeth Stanley) secretly seeks relief from psychological stress and chronic pain first in prescription opiates, then in harder stuff sold by skateboarding dealers when pharmacies balk. Husband Steve (solid Sean Allan Krill) works 60 hour weeks to provide for his brood and turns to Internet porn when MJ withdraws. Paragon son Nick (a fine Derek Klena) is en route to a prestigious dream university, but it wouldn’t be “Jagged Little Pill” if something weren’t poised to crack his shell as well.

This sheer synopsis might suggest a laundry list of every conceivable hot-button issue. Bisexuality, check. Gender fluidity, check. Opiate and porn addictions, check and check; race relations, you’re covered. Later, Nick’s pal (Logan Hart) is accused of date-raping the troubled Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), whose peers disbelieve her: two more check marks for #MeToo and Twitter-shaming.

Yet “Jagged Little Pill” is no cynical exercise. Its characters may touch on a wide spectrum of contemporary life, but so do the original album’s songs; it would betray the source material if it didn’t attempt to encompass what the late Tom Wolfe approvingly called “the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now.” Cody’s scenario thoughtfully wraps the social concerns around the characters, plotting and connecting the dots with assurance. And set designer Riccardo Hernandez’s swirling panels act as restless screens for projection designer Finn Ross’s photos and videos, serving as both family album and national panorama.

The real downside is that with so much going on, our interest and empathy are unreasonably stretched. Both Morissette avatars, MJ and Frankie, share the archetypal “All I Really Want” song (mom asks for patience; daughter, deliverance) and the dual focus on their journeys leaves several characters underserved.

But everyone serves, and is well served by, music rendered eminently stage-ready. Paulus engineers an ingenious collaboration starting with her dozen-member ensemble, employed like Greek choruses to comment on and participate in the principals’ conflicts. Clad mostly in black, they glide in for the second chorus of an individual’s song, like a troupe of Maenads acting out the singer’s pain through Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s dazzling choreography, all lunges and reaches and sharp turns. With master orchestrator Tom Kitt (“SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Next to Normal”) expanding the sound to Broadway size for the onstage band, the result is intimate songs transforming before our eyes into explosions which — in the case of “You Oughta Know,” the lacerating indictment of sexual betrayal assigned here to the rejected Jo — inspired a spontaneous standing ovation on opening night for Patten and the troupe.

Patten, a dead-ringer for Ellen Page in “Juno,” is one of two breakout stars in this production. Gooding, vocally spectacular and ineffably present at every moment, is the other. But Paulus directs everyone to their strengths; not since “Rent,” perhaps, has a musical invested so many bravura roles with so much individual life. And when their numbers are joined — in the chilling new #MeToo anthem “No” by Morissette and Guy Sigsworth — you get that frisson of excitement only big shows can provide. The years may have made “Jagged Little Pill” a little easier to swallow, but it remains good medicine.

Regional Theater Review: 'Jagged Little Pill'

American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass., 550 seats, $110 top. Opened, reviewed May 23, 2018; runs through July 15. Running time: TWO HOURS, 40 MIN.  

Production: American Repertory Theater presents, by special arrangement with Vivek J. Tiwary, Arvind Ethan David and Eva Price, a musical in two acts with book by Diablo Cody, lyrics by Alanis Morissette, music by Morissette and Glen Ballard with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth.

Creative: Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements, Tom Kitt. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Jonathan Deans; video, Finn Ross; production stage manager, Ira Mont.

Cast: Celia Gooding, Elizabeth Stanley, Antonio Cipriano, Kathryn Gallagher, Logan Hart, Derek Klena, Sean Allan Krill, Lauren Patten.

More Legit

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink' Film [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content