In the mid-1990s, Alanis Morissette reinvented herself, taking the grunge movement to the next level, in an era where song lyrics delved far beneath the surface to uncover boiling emotions and harsh truths. Her third studio album, Jagged Little Pill, was not only a massive hit with 33 million copies sold, but it also transformed its listeners who could empathize with the purging of angst brilliantly delineated through Morissette’s vocals (aided by Glen Ballard’s expert songwriting/producing). Highlighted by its emotional expressiveness, the validating album speaks across swaths of generations.
Gen-Xer Diablo Cody, screenwriter of Juno and Jennifer’s Body, has bottled the alternative-rock, fist-in-the-air memories of her teenage years for a modern-age account, laden with its own topical issues, via Jagged Little Pill, the (jukebox) musical — which features two new songs — and fabulously harnesses Morissette’s music for familial, social, and human-rights causes. The touring musical saw a successful opening night on September 14th in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre (where it is playing through Sunday, Oct. 2nd) despite a brief stoppage caused by technical difficulties in Act II. Undeniably, audiences can expect to be bowled over by powerhouse vocal performances alone, but they will assuredly also be roped in by character arcs they will find riveting.
Much of the palpability in the scenes and numbers are given weight due to Morissette’s soul-baring lyrics, which are reinvigorated by Tom Kitt’s orchestrations, a superb onstage band, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s fiery choreography, and Diane Paulus’s dynamic directing style. Like its recently concluded predecessor at the Pantages, Moulin Rouge!, the multilayered Jagged Little Pill, with interlocking narratives, indicates that a musical with story and substance can logically co-opt tunes that were originally written for mass appeal.
The plot spotlights a well-to-do Connecticut family, the Healys, who are forced to come to terms with problems they’ve mostly shrouded from their neighborhood peers. Burrowed under the copacetic image are difficulties unique to each family member. Mary Jane “MJ” Healy, a suburban mom who runs her household, suffers from an opioid dependency that is whittling away at her; her husband Steve, a workaholic, is never home, addicted to porn, and misses being physically intimate with his wife; son Nick, who has been admitted into Harvard, is the prized child but is besieged with the undoing of his future when he is revealed as a witness to his longtime friend, Bella, being raped at a party; and, adopted black and bisexual daughter Frankie doesn’t feel fully accepted and finds meaning in activism. Adding to the drama is that sixteen-year-old Frankie is in a relationship with Jo, a lesbian, but male classmate, Phoenix, comes between the pair.
Because the Mary Jane Healy character is developed the most, she becomes the backbone of Jagged Little Pill. Venerated Broadway star, Heidi Blickenstaff, flourishes under the pressure, revealing that MJ is not the perfect leader in the community she seems. A car accident the previous year, along with having to balance overwhelming obligations as wife and mother, has MJ secretly hooked on “medicine” she procures in alleyways. Blickenstaff makes it look easy as she pivots from being funny to deeply sympathetic, sometimes simultaneously, while never shedding her likability. Moreover, her vocal versatility lends itself to the conjuring of varied emotions, whether she’s resoundingly bringing the heat with her propulsive vocals or making evocatively haunting statements in the mesmerizing “Smiling” (co-written by Michael Farrell) and the heart-wrenchingly surreal “Uninvited.”
Steve Healy, portrayed by Chris Hoch, must examine how his physical and emotional unavailability has affected his family, particularly Mary Jane. Hoch ensures that Steve is not devoid of redemptive qualities, though, and excels at communicating gradual subtle changes that culminate with the touching song, “Mary Jane,” in Act II. Hoch, like Blickenstaff, is also underrated in delivering quips with just the right inflection — a skill that helps attendees resonate with the three-dimensional characters they’re observing.
Nick Healy, depicted by Dillon Klena, encounters his own crucible that serves as a wake-up call when he processes the nightmare his friend, Bella (Allison Sheppard) experiences. Over the course of the musical’s two-hour-and-forty-minute duration, Klena humbles and humanizes Nick insofar that the character sees beyond his comfortably lavish resources to comprehend the true essence of accountability. Allison Sheppard’s Bella stands for many women who have sadly had their trust compromised and, worse yet, have had their recollections dismissed or completely stifled. Sheppard particularly connects on a poignant level during a heart-to-heart with Blickenstaff’s MJ and earns the audience’s solemn, undivided attention with courageous rejoinders to sexual assault in “Predator” (also co-composed by Michael Farrell) and “No.”
Frankie Healy, one of the more complex characters, is thoroughly realized by Lauren Chanel. The adept Chanel weaves Frankie in and out of three conflicts directly affecting her — one involving her parents, another her girlfriend (Jade McLeod) and, lastly, her newfound boyfriend Phoenix (Rishi Golani). Through the undeterred passion that Chanel imbues the committed-to-reform Frankie, an aspiring writer, it’s hard not to get caught up in wanting to rectify the world’s injustices. Of note is that Morissette’s “Ironic” is creatively sang as a poem by Chanel’s Frankie, which is delivered with an unwavering diction in a classroom, albeit not without the comic interruption by Frankie’s classmates regarding what is and isn’t really “ironic” — a highlight of Act I.
Despite Phoenix being a mostly amiable character, represented by Rishi Golani’s appealingly pop timbre, his foray into Frankie’s life, compromising her faithfulness, fuels Jade McLeod’s Jo, the betrayed girlfriend, with ample motivation to unleash hell and fury in perhaps the most memorable number of the night — the iconic “You Oughta Know.” With the stage bathed in indignant red light, and with speakers blasted to a hair-raising eleven, McLeod digs into the depths of her being to unleash a raging kraken, emboldened by an unstoppable aim to exact a lyrical revenge. The grinding determination in McLeod’s voice amounts to a wonderful wail that wallops any disbelievers who foolishly stand in its way.
As the performers took their final bows on opening night at the Pantages Theatre, Alanis Morissette, Diablo Cody, and Glen Ballard joined the cast on stage in a pleasantly surprising moment. Morissette, who has done her fair share of touring, expressed awe for the troupe that will abide the rigors of travel throughout North America while maintaining the integrity of vocally demanding rock ballads and barn burners. Certainly, it requires energy to be extraordinary, expressionistic, and convey an agency founded on individuality and a collective purpose. Jagged Little Pill is so fearless that audiences will feel a surge of second-hand audacity and heroism by just being in its vicinity.
For more information about Jagged Little Pill at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, and to purchase tickets, please visit: BroadwayinHollywood.com