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Jagged Little Pill Hasn't Got It All Figured Out Just Yet

The highly anticipated musical has its world premiere at American Repertory Theater.

Derek Klena (center) and the cast of Jagged Little Pill, directed by Diane Paulus, at the American Repertory Theater.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

To call Jagged Little Pill one of the most buzzed-about theatrical events of the year is an understatement. With a score comprising some of Alanis Morissette's best-known and best-loved songs (most coming from her record-breaking 1995 album of the same name), a book by Oscar-winning Juno writer Diablo Cody, and directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus, commercial producers are no doubt already circling over A.R.T., where Jagged Little Pill is currently running.

Provocation does not seem to be a chief concern of Jagged Little Pill, though it would be fair — considering the source material — to expect a bit of edge to this entirely fictionalized musical. And despite all of the '90s songs that fill out the show, it tries to be very much a musical of the moment, attempting to cover a bevy of hot-button issues including opioid addiction, sexual assault, and gender identity. This self-aware and synthetically woke musical is, plain and simple, just trying too hard. The ironic thing (how's my usage, Ms. Cody?) about Jagged Little Pill is that while it so desperately wants to be a piece of musical resistance, it winds up being a garish love letter to white privilege for the 13 Reasons Why crowd and their liberal-leaning parents.

The Healys are an upper-middle-class (mostly) white family, the kind that can afford a European family vacation and then brag about it in their annual Christmas letter. Steve (Sean Allan Krill) works 60 hours a week to ensure the family's comfort, but this also means that he's not around much. He's married to Mary Jane (an extraordinary Elizabeth Stanley), an image-obsessed housewife who is "one salad away from a psychotic break" and has recently taken to monitoring Steve's internet activity. Their golden child, Nick (Derek Klena), is a senior in high school and was just accepted to the college of his parents' dreams. Their adopted daughter, Frankie (an able Celia Gooding), is the self-described "wild child" who has trouble connecting to her mother and struggles with the way that her color-blind parents don't seem to be able (or willing) to acknowledge her blackness.

Frankie's best friend and girlfriend, Jo (played by the remarkable Lauren Patten), is in the middle of exploring her own gender identity. But when their classmate, the hunky rebel Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), takes a liking to Frankie — and the feeling is definitely mutual — Jo gets more than a little jealous. But it is the rape of Nick's classmate Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) that consumes much of the musical's later scenes and feels the most gratuitously shoehorned in, giving Jagged Little Pill the feeling of a melodramatic after-school special.

The crux of the musical is Mary Jane's addiction to painkillers following a bad car accident. This middle-class addiction to opioids is not one that is yet overrepresented in popular culture, and Jagged Little Pill offers a valuable and fascinating look at the issue thanks mostly to Stanley's stirring portrayal of a desperate woman on the verge and to Paulus's refreshingly fluid staging in several key scenes. Jagged Little Pill works best in this way, all the while reminding us of how Stanley is criminally overdue for Broadway stardom.

The musical as a whole is too self-aware and spread too thin to leave much of a lasting impression. Cody highlights her trademark humor in her book, but also bathes it too frequently in cliché. While she has written the Healys as being completely aware of their privilege, that hyperconsciousness does not mitigate the story's troubling implication that anything can be overcome so long as one is rich and white. Morissette's defiant and daring songs (most cowritten by Glen Ballard) are incorporated in dubious or overly literal ways. "Hand in My Pocket" is performed — you guessed it — with one hand in her pocket and is accompanied by an out-of-left-field video of waving rainbow flags. Worse, "You Oughta Know" is used to show Jo's anger at Frankie for having slept with Phoenix. This song deserves better than high-school drama and so does Patten, whose effortless vocals and top-shelf spirit quite literally stop the show.

Tom Kitt's orchestrations and arrangements are ferociously good, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreography is propulsive and wholly original. Riccardo Hernandez's puzzling set consists of jagged flats on wheels, and Finn Ross's video designs are either too literal or completely out of place. There is also an overuse of projections that seem never to be in focus. (Justin Townsend's lighting makes up for some of the loss of atmosphere here.)

While there is honesty to the performances and a compelling story of addiction at its core, Jagged Little Pill is shocking for the tastelessness with which it suggests that we can overcome anything so long as we are rich and white and have a beautiful Connecticut home to recuperate in. As for Mary Jane and Steve, their crumbling marriage might just be saved by her addiction. Oh, and in the case of sexual assault, don't worry, girls, as long as you have a good-looking, white jock to corroborate your story, justice will be served.

Much like in the song, this musical hasn't got it all figured out just yet.

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