In “You Learn,” the song that concludes the new musical “Jagged Little Pill” on a note of hard-won, almost downbeat uplift, a lyric from Alanis Morissette recommends the advantages of “biting off more than you can chew.” It’s advice that the creators of this ambitious but frustratingly diffuse show, inspired by Morissette’s angsty album of the same title, and with a book by Oscar winner Diablo Cody, seem to have taken a little too seriously.
Although this portrait of a family weathering multiple crises often has a vital, beating heart, at other times the zigzagging storylines — which cover ripped-from-the-headlines topics including teenage sexual assault, opioid addiction, questions of racial and sexual identity and the poisonous effects of social media — threaten to pile up like so many cars in a fender-bender on a winter road. Attention-deficit disorder is not one of the issues the show addresses, which is almost surprising, given the prevalence of Adderall use among high-achieving teenagers like those in the show, but it may be a consequence of trying to absorb it.
The musical, directed by the ever-busy Diane Paulus, largely draws its score from Morissette’s 1995 pop-rock album, produced by Glen Ballard (who also co-wrote the music), which took the charts by storm and made an instant star of Morissette. The album remains a touchstone of the era, and perhaps seems more percipient and trenchant today, with its prefiguration of the tide of women’s empowerment — and the exposure of men’s exploitation — in various spheres of life.
Those issues are often front and center in “Jagged Little Pill,” which depicts that upper-middle-class Connecticut family beginning to splinter into isolated shards from the pressures of adolescent confusion, on the one hand, and middle-aged marital unhappiness on the other. It’s in toggling between the characters’ numerous problems, and the larger social issues they illustrate, that the musical sometimes steps on its own toes — shouting when a whisper might be better, or moving on quickly when a reflective pause might be more rewarding.
Mary Jane, the outwardly perky family matriarch played by Elizabeth Stanley, is a strong focus of the show. She has become addicted to painkillers after a car accident, first trying to wheedle a prescription refill from a stony-faced pharmacist, later skulking off to buy from dealers.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Frankie (a warm but feisty Celia Rose Gooding), seems to be happy with her girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten), but she finds herself questioning her relationship when she strikes up a flirtation with a fellow classmate, Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano). Underscoring the incongruity of their attraction, the song “Ironic,” one of Morissette’s bigger hits, evolves into a duet between these two, one of the more smoothly integrated meetings of old song and new story.
Frankie also begins to feel discomfort at her identity as the black adopted daughter in a white family in a largely white community — although this issue, amid the welter of others pressing upon the show, is dispatched in just a few passages of angry dialogue.
Frankie’s older brother Nick (Derek Klena), meanwhile, seems to be a golden boy — the family celebrates his acceptance to Harvard at the top of the show — but finds himself embroiled in a disturbing incident when one of his friends sexually assaults and photographs an inebriated fellow student, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher).
The musical should probably include a list of trigger warnings alongside the song list, so topical and potentially upsetting are the subjects it explores. Any single one might be considered sufficient matter for an evening of theater; here we are treated to a phonebook-thick newsmagazine stuffed with them.
Initially Mary Jane’s addiction as well as her micromanaging of her children’s lives is depicted in seriocomic style: “She’s one salad away from a psychotic break,” snarks Jo. Cody, the screenwriter of “Juno,” is not shy about cracking jokes about even the darker matters she explores. While all are funny, often even hilarious, too many border on sitcom-style one-liners, as when a coffee barista responds to one of Mary Jane’s friends’ order of a “skinny flat white” with the quip, “How appropriate.”
Happily, at least for the show’s sometime faltering emotional ballast, Mary Jane and her struggle to hide and then to confront her addiction is ultimately treated with gravity, becoming the most moving and effectively handled strand of the plot. (In this respect the musical recalls “Next to Normal,” also about a mother battling her inner demons.)
Stanley’s superb performance grows richer as the comedy subsides and Mary Jane wrestles with a dark memory from the past, an incident that looms like a sleeping dragon in her consciousness, unleashed when the news of Bella’s assault — and her son’s knowledge of it — comes to her attention.
Much of the musical staging, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, consists of stomping and churning choreography performed by a chorus of grunge-clad youth who seem to have wandered into the musical from a protest — any protest. But Cherkaoui also provides an arresting image of Mary Jane wrestling with her own psyche — embodied by a dancer dressed alike, contorting herself as Mary Jane sits frozen on the sofa — while the damaged Bella looks on. As Bella, Gallagher is also extraordinarily fine in depicting her character’s confusion and shame, which later turns to a determination to expose the truth, whatever the cost.
Unfortunately, such powerful moments are more the exception than the norm in “Jagged Little Pill,” which is directed by Paulus with her customary efficiency and, to her credit, as much emotional precision as the complicated narrative allows. Aside from Mary Jane and to a lesser degree Bella, the other characters do not have equally compelling storylines. (Did I mention that the father of the family, Sean Allan Krill’s Steve, is a porn addict?)
As Jo, Patten performs a fiery rendition of “You Oughta Know,” the biggest hit from the titular album, when she confronts Frankie over her infidelity. It’s a galvanizing musical moment, but still feels tangential, because despite a hailstorm of wisecracks, Jo never fully emerges as a major character (she’s got a crazy-Christian mom, but that’s about it), despite Patten’s serrated-edged performance.
As with most pop songbook musicals, your affection for “Jagged Little Pill” will probably correlate directly with your nostalgia for the Morissette album. The most popular songs received predictably rapturous responses, although some of the lesser-known Morissette songs, such as Mary Jane’s late, soul-searching solo referenced above, are just as well wrought.
“Jagged Little Pill” deserves plaudits for its unvarnished approach to its characters, its willingness to allow ambiguity to infect almost all of them as they wrestle with some sort of interior or external crisis. The problem is the superabundance of these strife-torn characters. It’s hard to truly do justice to their doubts, frustrations and anxieties without reducing them, and the show, to two dimensions — or fewer.
“Jagged Little Pill” opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on Dec. 6, 2019.
Review photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Book by Diablo Cody; Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard; Lyrics by Alanis Morissette; Directed by Diane Paulus; Movement Direction and Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Music orchestrated by Tom Kitt; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Jonathan Deans.
Producers: Vivek J. Tiwary, Arvind Ethan David, Eva Price, Caiola Productions, Level Forward & Abigail Disney, Geffen Playhouse-Tenenbaum-Feinberg, James L. Nederlander, Dean Borell Moravis Silver, Stephen G. Johnson, Concord Theatricals, Bard Theatricals, M. Kilburg Reedy, 42nd.club, Betsy Dollinger, Sundowners, The Araca Group, Jana Bezdek,Len Blavatnik, BSL Enterprises, LLC, Burnt Umber Productions, Darren DeVerna & Jeremiah Harris, Daryl Roth, Susan Edelstein, FG Productions, Sue Gilad & Larry Rogowsky, Harmonia, John Gore Theatrical Group, Melissa M. Jones & Barbara H. Freitag, Jujamcyn Theaters, Stephanie Kramer, Lamplighter Projects, Christina Isaly Liceaga, David Mirvish, Spencer B. Ross, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Iris Smith, Jason Taylor & Sydney Suiter, Rachel Weinstein, W.I.T. Productions/Gabriel Creative Partners and The American Repertory Theatre.
Cast: Kathryn Gallagher, Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Sean Allan Krill, Lauren Patten, Elizabeth Stanley, Annelise Baker, Jane Bruce, John Cardoza, Antonio Cipriano, Ken Wulf Clark, Laurel Harris, Logan Hart, Max Kumangai, Heather Lang, Ezra Menas, Nora Schell, Kei Tsuruharatani and Ebony Williams.