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Theatre in Review: Jagged Little Pill (Broadhurst Theatre)

Lauren Patten and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

It's counterintuitive, I know, but seeing Jagged Little Pill the other night, my mind kept drifting toward thoughts of Mamma Mia!, if only for comparative purposes. It was the dawning realization that the new tenant at the Broadhurst is the first jukebox musical since that frothy, ABBA-tastic romp not to consist of a rattletrap structure into which so many pop hits have been inserted, like coins in a Rock-Ola. Even more surprising, Jagged Little Pill has a number of serious points to make. (Too many, in fact, but we'll get to that.) There are limits to this format, to be sure, but in this case the creative team has fashioned a troubled universe that plausibly makes room for the playlist of Alanis Morissette's chartbusting 1995 album (and a few more, too). Better yet, it almost always puts the songs to pertinent dramatic use. If it's "perfectly imperfect," as its characters are fond of describing themselves, well, compared to follies like Head Over Heels, Escape to Margaritaville, and Bat Out of Hell -- not to mention a certain bespangled hit parade set in nineteenth-century Montmartre -- it is a remarkably adult achievement, building to an authentically wrenching climax.

Before you hit your send buttons, please note: I'm defining the term "jukebox musical" narrowly, to mean a show with a fictional story wrapped around a catalog of preexisting pop hits. This distinguishes it from star bio musicals, like Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Ain't Too Proud, and songbook revues, like Smokey Joe's Café. Compared to them, it's a mind-bendingly difficult -- not to say impossible -- way of working, and usually the results are gawky, if not jaw-droppingly silly. Most of the time, the best a book writer can do is come up with an airheaded story that doesn't intrude on the musical good times. And, really, what's the point of trying harder? The audience is usually in such a party mood that plots and characters hardly matter -- another margarita, please!

The people behind Jagged Little Pill are having none of this. Diablo Cody's book harnesses the songs -- by Morrisette and Glen Ballard (with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth) -- to a mordant story that speaks directly to our sour, rancorous time. The action focuses on the Healys, a clan of Connecticut suburbanites. From a distance, they look ideal; in reality, they dwell in a house of lies. Steve and MJ, the parents, are a seeming model of marital contentment -- except that their relationship is sexually moribund: Instead of togetherness, he is holed up at the office sixty hours a week while she indulges her daily round of shopping, SoulCycle, and Starbucks, popping opioids like Necco wafers. Their adopted daughter -- sixteen-year-old Frankie, who is black -- feels like a drop-in visitor to her white-bread community and is getting increasingly angry about it. Their son, Nick, is a Brooks Brothers ad in the flesh -- athletic, clean-cut, and Harvard-bound; he is also as empty as an unfilled oval on the SAT, so cowed is he by parental expectations. Whenever MJ tells him, "Sometimes I feel like you're the only thing I've done right," the remark slices through him like a knife.

The show wastes no time in having all this dissatisfaction boil over. As the sniping between Steve and MJ reaches crisis levels, she takes to the streets, taking ever greater risks to procure the pills the pharmacy will no longer supply. Frankie becomes embroiled in a romantic triangle, torn between her girlfriend, Jo, and Phoenix, a hot new boy in town; to her dismay, she learns she can be as callous as any of the cool kids at school. At one of those teen parties that turns into a drunken spree, Nick ends up a material witness to the sexual assault, by a teammate, of his childhood friend Bella. As is their way, the Healys keep these troubles, and many others, bottled up until an interconnected series of blowups drives them to the point of disaster.

Clearly, we are a long way from Margaritaville. Fortunately, Cody, a noted screenwriter making her Broadway debut, has a keen sense of the songs and how to fit them into an overall dramatic pattern. "All I Really Want" economically sketches in the Healys and their multiple discontents. She makes amusing use of "Ironic," turning it into Frankie's writing class essay and, in the process, reviving the old debate about Morrisette and Ballard's misuse of the term. (This gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening.) The haunting (and previously unreleased) "Smiling" paints an indelible portrait of MJ as she follows her daily routine in a narcotic fog. "Perfect" gets at Nick's nagging sense that by living for others he has become a stranger to himself. It helps that the lyrics (which have been tweaked occasionally to fit the script) are consistently literate and penetrating in their insights, informed by an honesty that accepts no prisoners.

At the same time, the songs pose a problem for which there is no clear solution: Given the consistent tone of the score, which shuttles between twin poles of dejection and fury, Jagged Little Pill can't avoid being all angst, all the time. With a plot that involves multiple instances of rape, drug addiction, racism, pornography, repressed memories, and homophobia -- along with a passing reference or two to climate change - the show is burdened with more issues than a protest march. (And yes, it has one of those, too.) Cody's dialogue often crackles with laughter, which helps to no end, and the characters she creates have the ring of reality, but she can't prevent the first act from feeling at times like a smorgasbord of dysfunctions.

And, as is usually the case, when the score comes first, it's not easy to merge it seamlessly with the story, no matter how cannily conceived. Unsurprisingly -- since it was probably Morrissette's biggest hit --- the number that rocks the theatre to its foundations is "You Oughta Know," the mother of all kiss-off ballads. Here it is assigned to Jo -- who, correctly, feels betrayed by Frankie, whom she catches in bed with Phoenix -- and the diminutive, dynamic Lauren Patten supplies the electric current here, rising to a pitch of fury that brings the audience to its feet in the middle of the second act. But Jo is really a supporting character, and the number -- which, ideally, should mark a decisive narrative turning point -- is, arguably, too big for its placement. It's the right song, at the wrong time, assigned to the wrong character, and it makes everything that comes after a little anticlimactic.

If you're willing to overlook such awkward bits, you're likely to get caught up in the Healys' downward spiral, thanks to a superb cast. Elizabeth Stanley, known for pepping up such light-minded larks as Cry-Baby, Million Dollar Quartet, and On the Town, positively scalds as MJ, a sunny, super-confident matron holding on to sanity by her fingertips -- her smile barely masking a deep reservoir of resentment even as she insists, summoning all the steel at her command, that everything is all right. As Frankie, who is fed up with being a token, even in her own home, Celia Rose Gooding -- daughter of Broadway leading lady LaChanze -- makes good use of the stardust in her DNA, cracking wise, singing gorgeously (especially in "Unprodigal Daughter"), and nailing the ambivalences that tie her up in knots. She especially makes good use of a look that kills while taking the measure of the hypocrites in her orbit.

The male characters are sketched in rather more casually, but Sean Allan Krill's Steve, helplessly watching his family implode, is a convincing study in frustration and heartbreak. Derek Klena's conventional good looks -- you could open an envelope with his profile -- contrast nicely with his deft rendering of that lost boy Nick. Antonio Cipriano is appealing as Phoenix, who is less a character than a device for driving Frankie and Jo apart. In other roles, Kathryn Gallagher is touching as Bella, especially when reaching out, fruitlessly, to MJ, and, as previously mentioned, Patten blows a hole in the stage with her big number; we'll surely be hearing from her again.

It's an evening of reckonings, expertly shepherded by the director, Diane Paulus, who maintains a headlong pace while taking time to tenderly examine each emotional scar. She is aided immensely by her designers. Riccardo Hernández's scenery, a series of sliding panels, flying gables, and movable sail shapes -- many of which act as surfaces for Lucy Mackinnon's apt, atmospheric projections of houses, schools, city streets, and party details --- serve to "wipe" the stage in cinematic fashion, changing locations in seconds. Justin Townsend's lighting consists of a series of powerful, muscular looks -- from saturated color chases that pump up the drama to stark, simple washes that trap the characters like specimens in a bell jar. Emily Rebholz's costumes for the younger characters look like the fruit of a sale at H&M, an accurate choice, I'm sure; she also has an eye for character-specific touches, such as the down vest that MJ wears like a suit of armor. (Jonathan Deans' sound design reliably positions the vocals on top of Tom Kitts' orchestrations, although in two or three numbers the cast members could work on their diction.) Less successful is the choreography, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a series of showy displays that often seem designed to distract from the principals; his handling of certain uglier sequences, using doubles for MJ and Bella, is a little too artful for its own good, an odd choice in a show that takes pride in pulling no punches.

Still, Cody and company have managed the trick of making one care about characters who are equally wounded and opportunistic as they flail their way toward self-knowledge. The Healys remain likable throughout, despite their frequently terrible decisions, and the sight of the sadder-but-wiser clan facing an uncertain future just might bring you to tears. If I seem to complain, it's only because so much of Jagged Little Pill succeeds that one wants it to be perfect. This is, of course, the same desire that gets the show's characters into so much trouble. I guess that qualifies as ironic. --David Barbour

(7 January 2020)

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