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Review: Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill Delivers the Placebo Effect Onstage

Diablo Cody has theatricalized the monumental album of teen angst with a busy script.

Lauren Chanel stars in Jagged Little Pill, directed by Diane Paulus, at the Pantages Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

Alanis Morissette has transformed her groundbreaking 1995 album Jagged Little Pill into a musical — one that promotes forgiveness, diversity, and affirmation. But by pounding it over the audience's head with a loud, convoluted thud, the production at the Pantages is less a transformative experience and more a splitting headache.

The Healys are the perfect all-American family, as dictated by mother Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff) in her holiday newsletter. But even her permanent smile cannot hide her contempt for her life. Husband Steve (Chris Hoch) spends all his time at the office watching kinky porn, while adopted daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel) has drifted completely away from her mother and grown up to be a bisexual activist. Mary Jane idolizes her graduating son, Nick (Dillon Klena), and has been co-dependently attached to the boy for years. She chases away her demons with pain pills. Once the prescriptions run out, she relies on hoodie-wearing dealers for her fix.

And that's just Mary Jane's story. One of the gargantuan issues with Diablo Cody's book (which managed to win a Tony Award) is that it can't decide whose story to tell. A play about drug abuse in suburbia, rape and the horrific legal demands placed on the victim, mixed-race adoption, the evolution of gender fluidity, the crumbling of the modern marriage, and the responsibility of being the perfect child are a lot of jagged little pills to swallow in one sitting. There is just too much story. All the characters are so self-absorbed that the audience winds up caring little about any of them. Instead of finding a focus and giving the audience side characters with interesting storylines, the play makes every character a lead, but never gives any of them enough material.

Jade McLeod and Lauren Chanel appear in the North American Tour of Jagged Little Pill.
(© Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

The two most intriguing characters exist mostly on the periphery: Bella (Allison Sheppard), the tomboy whose life is destroyed after a high school party, and Jo (Jade McLeod), the gender-fluid lover who finds themself disposable. Back-to-back in Act Two, Bella's Predator and Jo's rage-filled You Oughta Know finally rock the stage and alter the musical for the short term.

Morissette's songs still command attention, but her lyrics have always been filled with absurdities that work as the poetry of her angst. As dialogue, they come off inane. This is most obvious in "Not The Doctor" where Mary Jane and Steve argue in front of their therapist. When the hook of the song goes "Visiting hours are 9 to 5 and if I show up at 10 past 6, well I already know that you'd find some way to sneak me in," this audience member wanted to shout, "THAT'S NOT DIALOGUE." But luckily, the sound mixing has taken care of much of that issue because almost all the lyrics are indecipherable throughout the show (sound design by Jonathan Deans). Even a well-known song like "You Oughta Know" has such loud orchestrations (by Tom Kitt) that nothing can be understood. The poor enunciation of the singers also contributes to the mushiness, which should have been cleaned up by director Diane Paulus.

Despite the show's problems, it benefits from very talented cast. Blickenstaff takes a stubborn, half-comatose character and pours a wrath into her songs that makes everyone pay attention. Sheppard progresses from a carefree child to a lost victim to an advocate for change with authenticity. McLeod is riveting in their frenzy towards their character's girlfriend/not girlfriend and unleashes in "You Oughta Know" all the pain they have probably bottled up for years as a non-binary "embarrassment" to their ultra-religious mother.

Jordan Leigh McCaskill, Chris Hoch, and Heidi Blickenstaff star in the North American Tour of Jagged Little Pill.
(© Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman)

Paulus, always an inventive director, pulls out some clever touches, including rewinding an entire scene visually for a song to represent Mary Jane's drug stupor. With choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Paulus leads the cast in carousel movements with their desks on rollers. The furniture often interacts with the ensemble as aspects of the choreography. They also use a modern dancer Ena VanElslander to represent both Bella disconnecting from her rape in Predator" and Mary Jane's monkey on her back in Uninvited'' — to enthralling effect.

Many an adolescent-to-young-adult in the summer of 1995 slapped in the CD of Morissette's Jagged Little Pill after every little breakup, lowered the windows, and cranked "You Oughta Know" at full blast. It was the battle cry of the summer for every displaced lover. Something so vital has been shamefully turned into something pedestrian. It feels like drifting in and out during a movie marathon on Lifetime. Audiences deserve a stronger prescription than this Jagged Little Pill.