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.