One would be hard pressed to assemble a more promising pedigree than that of “Jagged Little Pill,” the clamorous new musical now rocking the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway. The Tony-winning Diane Paulus, who reimagined “Hair” and “Pippin” a few years back and brought “Waitress” to life, is at the helm. Diablo Cody, who nabbed a Best Screenplay Oscar for “Juno,” wrote the book, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning music director Tom Kitt (“Next To Normal”) devised the orchestrations.
And then there’s the main source material — the explosive, seminal album (also titled “Jagged Little Pill”) from Alanis Morissette, the scraggly-locked, angry young woman who won four Grammy Awards for her effort in 1995. Co-written with Glen Ballard, it remains one of the top 20 best-selling albums of all time.
The show also features lesser-known tracks from her other albums. “The Queen of Alt-Rock Angst,” as Rolling Stone once dubbed her, even contributed a couple of new songs. The brash, hip-hop inflected choreography is by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Along with a spirited cast of 21, eye-popping costumes (a cryptic mix of Coachella, ‘90s grunge, and “Mad Max” by Emily Rebholz), and a kick-ass rock band, the entire team works overtime trying to deliver an engaging, heart-wrenching parable for today’s audiences.
Despite the heroic effort, however, my emotions were only intermittently engaged. Try as it may, this “Jagged Little Pill” simply cannot overcome the curse of the jukebox musical.
While it would be tempting to blame book writer Cody, who has scant theater experience, that would be unfair. She has devised a complex, provocative tale ripped from today’s headlines about wrenching familial strife hidden behind a shiny façade of normalcy.
At the center of the action is the Healy family, who live in a small, affluent town in Connecticut. Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is a stay-at-home mom more obsessed with status and Soul Cycle classes than meeting the needs of her workaholic husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill), her All-American, Harvard-bound son, Nick (Derek Klena), and her rebellious, activist daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding).
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the cheery opening scene, where Mary Jane pens her annual Christmas letter boasting of the Healys’ accomplishments, will give way to a darker scenario, where shocking secrets are exposed.
Regrettably, the earnest tuner tries too hard to be of-the-moment, cramming in themes such as bisexuality, social media bullying, bigotry, opioid abuse, gender equality, online pornography, school gun violence, and even rape. Not only is Frankie adopted, which raises its own concerns, she is black, opening up themes about racial tension. Frankie holds a protest sign that says, “Does my period scare you?”
And while the songs mesh better with the narrative than most jukebox musicals, quite a few still feel off-kilter, distancing us from the material. The passion feels unearned.
The whole shebang comes across as a bit trite. You could say that “Jagged Little Pill” confuses attitude with platitude.
Normally, it’s the sing-along familiarity of the songs that lifts and carries us through such shows. But for the casual Morissette fan like myself who knew fewer than half the hits, many numbers registered as a big “meh.”
Make no mistake, on a nostalgic level I enjoyed chart toppers like “Ironic,” “Hand in My Pocket,” and “You Learn.” And the scathing “You Oughta Know,” sung by Frankie’s jilted ex-girlfriend (Lauren Patten, who reminded me of Ellen Page in “Juno”) had the crowd on its feet, a bona fide showstopper.
The appeal of many successful jukebox musicals is that the book is based on the life of the musical artist, such as “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and “Jersey Boys.” There is no such connection with “Jagged Little Pill.”
That said, this well-intentioned tale of suburban subversion resurrects a canon of Morissette gems that deserves to be heard by a new generation.
JAGGED LITTLE PILL | Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. | Tue. & Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. & Sat. at 2 p.m..; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$399 at JaggedLittlePill.com | Two hrs., 35 mins., with intermission