(Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022)
It’s been nearly 30 years since Alanis Morissette’s iconic pop-rock angst album Jagged Little Pill dropped but its songs, and the emotions and messages they hold, are as impactful as ever. The album that gave a generation of teen girls a cache of soul-piercing anthems still has the power to cut deep as adults. That’s made very clear by the jukebox-style Broadway musical of the same name, written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and built around Morissette’s 1995 album.
Jagged Little Pill centers on an ostensibly picture-perfect family, the aptly-named Healys, as beneath the surface, they are all hurting deeply. This is an ensemble work but if there’s one central character, it would be mom Mary Jane (a phenomenal performance by Heidi Blickenstaff), hiding an opiate addiction and dealing—or rather, actively not dealing—with some long-dormant trauma from her youth. She is disconnected from her workaholic but still loving husband Steve (Chris Hoch) and her adopted activist teen daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel). Her teenage son, Nick (Dillon Klena) is a Harvard-bound, high-achieving golden child and a bright spot in his mother’s life, so it’s no surprise that he is positively crumbling under the weight of her expectations of perfection.
The show takes on some heavy issues including addiction, as mentioned, as well as sexual assault and the intense trauma it can engender on both a personal and generational level. Even still, the characters and storylines in the show, while interesting, never really go deeper than their surface. Most of the characters are one-note or, at most, defined by a pair of simple contradictions. (Frankie is a compassionate activist and also a selfish teen; Mary Jane is a picture-perfect mother and also fighting her own deep-seated trauma.) Their story arcs are broad and largely predictable.
There are no surprises to be had in Cody’s script. But that does not mean there isn’t lots to enjoy in this Broadway touring production directed by Diane Paulus. There is a captivating, pulsating energy running throughout the entire show, channeled largely via the cast of dancers and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s fevered choreography. The simplicity of Riccardo Hernández’s set—tall moving video panels (designed by Lucy MacKinnon) set within the frame of a typical house-shaped pentagon, with the live band tucked up in the A-frame of the attic—is a clean backdrop for Justin Townsend’s frenetic lighting design and the raucous energy of the cast.
And then there is the show’s secret weapon: A second-act performance of Morissette’s iconic rage anthem, “You Oughta Know,” belted out by Frankie’s “best friend” (an extreme euphemism wielded by a blithely obtuse Mary Jane), Jo. For most of the show, Jo (an extraordinary JadeMcLeod) is relegated to comedic relief and emotional support. With “You Oughta Know,” they are cracking themselves open, and the result is an exhilarating, show-stopping outpouring of raw emotion. All of the music in the show is fantastic, including and possibly even especially the two new songs crafted by Morissette. They are the same evocative, biting tunes that we’ve known for decades, beautifully arranged for the stage by Glen Ballard. But McLeod’s “You Oughta Know” is transcendent and more than enough to make up for any of the show’s weaker spots.
“Jagged Little Pill” runs at Starlight Theatre (4600 Starlight Road) through August 6. For more information, visit kcstarlight.com.