Heidi Blickenstaff and ensemble. All photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
I love it when a show surprises me.
Despite its having won two Tony Awards and been nominated for fifteen, I actually had no real thoughts about Jagged Little Pill other than the vague feeling that, yes, I’m interested in checking it out. With its national tour now ensconced at the Nederlander Theatre, I got my chance.
It blew me away.
With a solid cast and mind-bogglingly brilliant choreography, this musical, based on Alanis Morisette’s epochal 1995 album of the same name and a Tony-winning book by Diablo Cody, is scarily intense at times—I’ll discuss that later—and utterly honest about both the struggles it depicts and the depth of the emotions its teen and adult characters reveal or hold in. It is a musical that is powerful, raw, and real. It has its humorous and sweet moments, too, and contemplative ones, but the overall energy of the show is angry and kinetic, as encapsulated by the often extreme, percussive, and frantic movements of the ensemble, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Cody’s book focuses on the Healy family, in many ways a typical upwardly mobile household in suburban Connecticut with typical individual and collective issues. The marriage of mother Mary Jane (the incredible Heidi Blickenstaff) and father Steve (Chris Hoch) is foundering. Since a car accident the previous winter, she has become secretly addicted to oxycodone and has pulled away from her husband and children both physically and emotionally. The parents have no sex life, which Steve attributes to MJ’s increasing distance—he is clueless about the opioids—and she believes stems from all of the porn he watches.
An opening scene tells us everything we need to know to understand this family’s dynamic. It shows MJ writing the family’s annual Christmas letter, bragging about the year (and especially son Nick’s early admission to Harvard) while each member of the family—including her—shows clearly by their reactions that this family is anything but perfect. Steve spends more and more time at the office, MJ spends more and more time in a daze, adopted daughter Frankie—pointedly a Black teen in this lily-white world—pulls further and further away, and even “perfect” son Nick, who is the only one to whom MJ shows any affection, no longer seems sure of his path in life. In short, despite what it says in their Christmas letter, this family is a total mess.
The plot moves forward in two separate plotlines that eventually overlap. MJ struggles with her marriage and sinks more and more into her addiction while Frankie (played to perfection by the stunning Lauren Chanel) searches for identity as a socially conscious Black bisexual teenager. At first in a relationship with her lesbian best friend Jo, who is perhaps the most wholly sympathetic character, (Jo is played by Jade McLeod, and her vitriolic and painful rendition of “You Oughta Know” is one of the show’s high points), Frankie finds surprising succor in a new classmate named Phoenix (Rishi Golani), a somewhat underwritten boy character who defends her in creative writing class when everyone gets on her case about her misuse of the word “ironic.” (This is sort of an in-joke: Morisette was taken to task online over lyrics that said things were ironic when they were actually only bad or unlucky.)
Jake McLeod and ensemble
The siblings and Phoenix, whom Frankie believes she “loves,” end up attending a high school party at the home of a jock, which ends up being the story’s turning point, as a classmate (Bella, played by Allison Sheppard) later alleges that the host raped her while she was drunkenly passed out. Most of the teens’ problems from that point stem from the rape allegation, which Frankie believes, Nick wants to ignore, and MJ insists he stay away from lest he jeopardize his reputation and perhaps even his college acceptance. MJ’s problems, already extreme, are exacerbated by the rape story because it is identical to something that happened to her in college.
Throughout the show, Cherkoui and director Diane Paulus move things along through an extraordinary use of movement: ensemble members seem always to be doing things with scenery, and in this whirlpool of motion nothing stays in one place for very long. Several scenes, including one at a church and one in a classroom, use their highly kinetic blocking to show characters on the edge. A quieter scene on a swingset suggests the romance building between Frankie and Phoenix. Another scene, involving MJ’s reaction to discovering that she no longer has an active prescription for oxy, moves forward and then backward as she senses the loss of control. A crowd scene protesting sexual assault—another highlight—is a jumble of movement and signs. And all the while the Morisette soundtrack continues to pound and gather steam, Justin Townsend’s lights signal the fluctuating emotions, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections help define where we are.
It isn’t only the rowdy rock tracks with their “wall of sound” quality and the powerful, ballistic movements that provide the pain here. One of the most harrowing scenes of all is essentially a pas de deux danced to the mostly quieter “Uninvited.” Here, ensemble member Jena VanElslander becomes MJ’s doppelganger, brutally playing out the latter’s breakdown due to the fentanyl-laced oxy she had overdosed on. VanElslander, a remarkably expressive dancer, performs a similar scene helping us to see Bella’s rape.
Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard, and Jena VanEslander
About the only complaint I had about this production was the somewhat mushy sound whenever the ensemble was singing unaccompanied by the leads. It was often very difficult to understand them or even make out words, unfortunate in a play that depends on its ensemble as much as this one does. Despite this, though, I can recommend Jagged Little Pill without reservation to theatergoers of high school age and up. (It will probably be too heavy for younger children.) Though this is categorized as a “jukebox” musical, the unified nature of the songs, the strong acting, and Cody’s script lift it, in my opinion, above that genre to something closer emotionally to Next to Normal. I can’t even tell you how glad I am that I finally had a chance to see it.
The Broadway in Chicago production of Jagged Little Pill is playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, until April 23. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.