I have deep nostalgia for the source discography, so I went into this jukebox musical primed yet wary. Alanis Morissette’s debut album (like Alanis herself, we’re just gonna sweep her two Canadian dance-pop entries under the rug) was a defining part of my 90s teenage life. And while I don’t think it’s destined to be a classic, I really loved Jagged Little Pill the musical.
This touring production, currently presented by Mirvish, can be pretty cheesy as it press-gangs Morissette’s songs into some narrative utility. Our focus is on the Healy family, each member of which has their own demons, and how their internal struggles alienate them from each other. Diablo Cody’s book wants to address a number of social issues—family disfunction, racial identity, rape, victim blaming, drug addition—and whatever it can’t address directly in the actual plot, it works into slogans on protest placards.
Frankie (Teralin Jones) is a young Black woman who feels estranged from the suburban white family she was adopted into. Her mother, Mary Jane (Julie Reiber), is addicted to pain killers after a recent car accident. Her father, Steve (Benjamin Eakeley), is a workaholic addicted to porn because his wife’s interest in sex has dried up. Biological son Nick (Dillon Klena) has been accepted into Harvard, but he’s tormented by this success and fears he’s only striving to meet his perfectionist mother’s ideal.
Extended complications include: Frankie’s love triangle with her social activist girlfriend Jo (Jade McLeod) and intriguing new student at school, Phoenix (Rishi Golani), and the rape of a classmate, Bella (Allison Sheppard). Of all the characters and their drama, I found middle-aged Mary Jane’s connection to teenage Bella the most compelling. Bella’s ordeal has forced Mary Jane’s own repressed trauma to the surface where it sends her spiralling out of control. The end of the first act, an arresting interpretation of the song “Forgiven,” is a crystallization of their experiential link.
Oddly enough, the two most theatrically innovative segments are set to songs not from the titular album. “Smiling” (from Such Pretty Forks in the Road) is a stirring recreation of a day in the life of Mary Jane, which takes us backwards through a series of interactions in which we discover the secretive lengths she’ll go to maintain the facade of suburban perfection. Through eerie and hypnotic reversed motion, director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui have achieved a truly haunting portrait of a woman disassociating from her own life.
Another evocative sequence is set to the single “Uninvited.” Mary Jane, popping pills on a sofa, is joined by her doppelganger and the two fall into a violent and chaotic interaction while Bella chillingly lurks in the background. With the dissonant chords of the song propelling their limbs akimbo, it’s a messy, unnerving spectacle and a highlight of Paulus’ directorial vision.
With a simple, neon outline of a house serving as a frame through which we watch the story unfold; a series of panels—on which video designer Lucy MacKinnon projects fragmented environmental images—establishes location, mood and headspace. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernándex has various institutional and domestic props—sofa, dining table and chairs, schools desks—slide out from under a metal truss. Justin Townsend’s design features concert lighting rigged around this structure, giving us a stylized and energetic fusion of mundane life and rock concert.
The ensemble numbers feel a little contrived, as if a whole community of people suddenly appear to make this a big musical, only to vanish once their aesthetic purpose has been served.
Cody explicitly bookends the arc of the story with Mary Jane pulling the Healy family together for a Christmas card photo—grimaces of forced perfection at the beginning, genuine acceptance of their flaws and shared journey of healing at the end. Oh, hey… Healy/healing—clever!
As a musical theatre venture, Jagged Little Pill has a host of both mediocre and transcendent qualities. It’s most precious aspect, for me, is how authentically it captures the spirit of Morissette’s oeuvre. It required conscious effort to not sing along.