Nearly 25 years after “Jagged Little Pill” hit the shelves of record stores, Alanis Morissette’s innovative 1995 album has arrived on Broadway under the muscular direction of Diane Paulus, who launched this galvanic production at the American Repertory Theater. The show’s supportive book by screenwriter Diablo Cody interprets Morissette’s musical idiom as a universal domestic drama — with strong emphasis on the kids and their friends — recounted in heart-wrenching song.
It would be an insult to call this stage adaptation a jukebox musical, because unlike most specimens of that theatrical genre, the story seems to emerge organically from the music. Both structurally and thematically, comparisons to the 2008 musical “Next to Normal” by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt are probably inevitable. (In each show, an all-American family is profoundly challenged by a mother suffering from a debilitating condition.) But Morissette’s youthful perspective and the rocking-good score make “Jagged Little Pill” feel very much of the moment — this moment.
Right from the start, the audience feels under attack by the fierce hormonal energy of angsty adolescents and the unfocused anxiety of their parents. Unsurprisingly, “All I Really Want” is right up there, close to the top of the show, with the entire company articulating their inexpressibly painful needs. The spastic movements devised by choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui provide a brilliantly crazed energy that smartly reflects their raging hormones and unfocused outrage. Even Emily Rebholz’s rag-bag costumes contribute to the disjointed adolescent emotions that overflow the stage.
When the focus shifts to the Healy family, the feelings get more personal. “All I really want is some peace, man,” sings Nick Healy (sensitively played by Derek Klena) the superstar son who is headed for Harvard. Later in the show, Klena will have a nice moment with “Perfect,” sharing Nick’s fears of not being able to live up to the expectations of his family and his teachers.
“All I really want is deliverance,” sings teenager Frankie Healy (big-voiced, warm-hearted Celia Rose Gooding). “All I really want is some patience / A way to calm my angry voice” sings the family’s pill-popping mother, Mary Jane, played with infinite compassion in a stunning performance by Elizabeth Stanley.
“Hand in My Pocket” goes to Frankie’s girlfriend, Jo (the show-stopping Lauren Patten), who has one of the funniest, most acerbic lines in Cody’s unusually articulate book: “Dear Jesus, please don’t let my only child be gay,” she says, mocking her religious mother. “Especially not one of those obvious gays who wear performance fleece and utility sandals.” Later in the show, after Frankie’s romantic rejection of the broken-hearted Jo, Patten brings the cheering audience to its feet with her howling version of “You Oughta Know.”
What makes this musical so seriously smart is the way that some of the most beloved songs from Morissette’s iconic album come right out of the dramatic content, rather than being slapped on top of a wobbly book scene. “Ironic,” for one clever example, becomes a poem that Frankie is unsuccessfully trying to read out loud in class, hooted down by classmates who point out that the examples she uses in her poem are not, in fact, ironic.
“So Unsexy,” another good example of creative transformation, is here sung (beautifully) by Sean Allan Krill as Steve Healy, mourning the loss of passion in his marriage to Mary Jane, the wife he still adores. “How these little abandonments / Seem to sting so easily / Your hand pulling away / And I’m devastated” seem more tragic, somehow, coming from a long-married man longing for the lost love of his life.
More than any other song from the album, “Wake Up” probably carries the most weight for drama. It becomes the musical baseline for a savage story about a girl named Bella (Kathryn Gallagher, giving a helluva performance) who is assaulted at a party and cruelly mocked by her classmates. One of two new songs that Morissette wrote for the show, “Predator,” was penned for Bella, whose story becomes the plot hook that gives the entire second act its focus — and puts all the remaining songs in their most pointed political context.
As far as I’m concerned, this is a show you want to shout about. But the kids who would love it probably can’t afford it and the grownups who can afford it might not get it. So here’s my suggestion: Instead of coupling up, every grownup who can spring for tickets should take a teenager.