“I recommend biting off more than you can chew” is one Alanis Morissette lyric that the team behind Jagged Little Pill appears to have taken far too literally.
When the musical—clobbered together from Morissette’s catalogue of hits—premiered at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater last spring, I wrote in my review that it was a self-aware, synthetically woke new musical, as melodramatic as one of those bygone after-school specials. Yet here we are, a year and a half later, and Jagged Little Pill has finally arrived on Broadway, still every bit as convoluted and self-aware.
Morissette’s songs—two of which were written specifically for the musical—work surprisingly well within the context of the story, which is almost never the case when it comes to jukebox musicals. But the story (written by Diablo Cody, an Oscar winner for Juno) is a black hole of timely social issues and two-dimensional characters. The result feels something like being waterboarded with hashtags and stereotypes, which is at least partially the fault of director Diane Paulus, a Tony winner for Pippin. The music may be good, but I’ll never understand why it is being used to tell these stories.
The Healys are a well-to-do family living in Connecticut. Steve (Sean Allan Krill), is a successful lawyer who works 60 hours a week; mom, Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley), is a self-described “stuck up bitch” still recovering from a car accident who monitors her husband’s internet usage and is “one salad away from a psychotic break;” Nick (Derek Klena) is the handsome, golden boy son who just got into Harvard; and Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) is their 16 year old, bisexual, black adopted daughter with an exhausting hunger for justice.
Mary Jane’s dirty secret—one that she is hiding from her entire family—is that she has been addicted to painkillers ever since her car accident. With her prescriptions drying up, she’s taken to buying pills on the street. She and her husband haven’t been intimate in over a year, and so the Healy household is fraught with tension. There also seems to be something going on with Nick, who should be happy about Harvard but instead seems to be crumbling under the weight of all the pressure he’s been under. There is a lot going on with Frankie, too, though what she’s so unhappy about is never made clear. She seems to resent the way that her parents try not to “see color,” but her rebellion comes off as shallow since we are never shown how her adoptive parents have failed her.
As if all of this weren’t enough to fill a musical, there’s more: at a party one night, Becca (a classmate of Nick and Frankie, played by Kathryn Gallagher) is assaulted by a classmate. While Frankie is determined to be an advocate for Becca, Nick—who was an eyewitness to the alleged assault—keeps what he knows to himself, and walks the stage for the rest of the show line a teary-eyed zombie, torn up inside over whether to speak up or stay quiet. In addition to Mary Jane’s addiction and her crumbling marriage, Becca’s assault also causes a bit of chaos in the Healy household as it brings up some past trauma for Mary Jane. How much tragedy can one privileged family take?
But wait! There’s more.
Frankie has a girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten), who appears to exist for the sole purpose of singing “You Oughta Know” after she discovers Frankie in bed with a boy. So with lyrics like “I’m here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away” and “Does [he] know how you told me you’d hold me until you died,” it seems foolish that such a song is being sung by one 16 year old kid to another, especially since there are no earlier scenes in the show that indicate that their relationship was anything more than a high school fling.
There is a big tonal problem with Jagged Little Pill in that it either takes itself way too seriously or not seriously enough. There are moments of Cody’s book that remind us of how good she is at one-liners, but it is also littered with references to how basic and white the Healy family is, which undercuts the supposed dramatic severity of what’s happening to them. How are we supposed to invest emotionally in characters that are mere cardboard cutouts, characters that Cody, herself, doesn’t always seem to respect? After more than two hours with these people, we don’t really know who they are by the end of the night. We come closest with Mary Jane, and that is due in no small part to Stanley’s riveting performance, one that should earn her her first Tony nomination.
With so much going on in this musical, what ends up rising to the irksome top is the privilege that has ensured that the Healeys will come out on top. Just try to miss the huge, garish, glittering diamond ring on Mary Jane’s finger as she recovers in her hospital bed. Does the privilege—that none of them seem to be aware that they have—make them less sympathetic? At best, it makes them clueless, and I’d lump Cody and Paulus into that as well. By the time Mary Jane delivers one of the play’s final lines, “we are all perfectly imperfect people, just like you” I didn’t know whether to laugh or reach for my barf bag.
One of the highlights of Jagged Little Pill last year, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s propulsive choreography now feels overdone, but the feverish staging of “Uninvited,” in which Mary Jane floats in and out of consciousness, remains the most thrilling part of the show. So does the entirely in reverse staging of “Smiling,” one of Morissette’s original songs.
But the entire musical still looks threadbare, sterile, and ugly, mostly due to Ricardo Hernández’s set that consists of blurry projections, small flats that are pushed around the stage, and a rock concert set of lights that seems to descend on the stage for no apparent reason.
In its handful of two-dimensional characters, half realized plot points all competing for a hot button issue, and 23 songs, Jagged Little Pill has awfully little to say about an awful lot. Isn’t it ironic?
JAGGED LITTLE PILL. BROADHURST THEATRE, 235 W. 44THST., NEW YORK. JAGGEDLITTLEPILL.COM