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Don’t be misled into thinking that Jagged Little Pill is yet another high-profile jukebox musical about a famous entertainer. The mostly worshipful and misguided biographic whitewashes such as The Cher Show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and even the best of the bunch, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, have been inundating Broadway over the last few years with, for the most part, a dreary mediocrity and predictability. Instead, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus have crafted a powerful narrative of suburban America inspired by the songs of seven-time Grammy winner Alanis Morissette, primarily from her smash 1995 breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, in addition to other tunes from throughout her career as well as a few new, previously unreleased ones, with music by her longtime collaborator Glen Ballard.
The show opens in the Healys’ home as Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is preparing the family’s annual Christmas letter. She brags about her husband, Steve (Sean Allan Krill), a partner in a law firm; their daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), an artistic wunderkind; their son, Nick (Derek Klena), who has been accepted to Harvard; and even herself, focusing on how she has survived a car accident. “It’s amazing what you can get used to with a little discipline,” she cheerfully writes. “The mind and body are connected in ways we can’t even imagine. I’ve gotten to a point where I can’t feel anything!” She can’t feel anything because she’s hooked on opioids, which help her not face the reality of her life: Her husband is a workaholic, her daughter is a radical lesbian, her son is about to get caught up in a sex scandal, and she is a drug addict. When she later bumps into three vapid friends at the local coffee shop, one says to her, “M.J., you have to give yourself some credit. We all know you’re ‘Super Mom.’” But even Superman has his Kryptonite.
Her carefully created world threatens to come crashing down when she learns that one of Nick’s best friends, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), might have been raped at a party and Nick might be involved in some way. But she’s not about to let the truth get in the way of her family’s success, even as the house of cards starts tumbling down all around her. “Whether you like it or not, how you present yourself to the world matters,” she tells Frankie, an African American child the Healys adopted. “People act like my parents are heroes or something just for wanting me,” Frankie explains to Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), the new kid in school. “My mom always says she ‘doesn’t see color.’ But sometimes I wish she did. Is that weird?” Frankie is instantly attracted to the strange Phoenix, which does not make her supposed girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten), very happy. Meanwhile, Steve thinks it’s time for him and Mary Jane to go to marriage counseling. “I don’t want to be resented when I’m just trying to provide for you / I don’t want to be berated for simply doing my best to reach you / I don’t want to be controlling / I just want our life to be normal again,” he sings. But nothing will ever be “normal” for the Healys again, whatever “normal” even means anymore. As Bella later says to Mary Jane, “Tell me when I’m going to feel normal again.”
Jagged Little Pill has its share of jagged edges, occasionally dancing too close to clichés, hammering home its #MeToo message far too aggressively, Frankie’s affection for Phoenix is underdeveloped, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography feels like it’s escaped from a different show as an ensemble of frantic dancers regularly get in the way. They almost — but thankfully don’t — ruin Patten’s dynamic performance of one of Morissette’s most famous songs, “You Oughta Know,” which rocks the theater to its foundations. Patten, seen previously in such shows as Fun Home, The Wolves, and Days of Rage, firmly establishes herself as someone to watch. Cody (Juno, Tully) has a lot of fun with riffing on “Ironic” (“Hold up, wait a second, that’s actually not ironic,” one of Frankie’s classmates argues) and cleverly exposes disturbing aspects of suburban America while tackling issues of race, addiction, and sexual abuse.
Tom Kitt’s orchestrations do justice to Morissette’s originals, with powerful versions of such familiar songs as “All I Really Want,” “Hand in My Pocket,” and “You Learn” in addition to tunes from such other Morissette albums as Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept, delivered by a terrific cast and an eight-piece band (that really don’t need to keep rolling onto Riccardo Hernández’s set. There’s also a beautiful scene in which Mary Jane is joined by her younger self in a haunting dance. Jagged Little Pill might not be nonfiction, but it rocks with a poignant realism, since Morissette’s songs are often so confessional, based on painful events from her life. The story takes place over the course of a year, concluding with a very different Christmas letter. As Morissette so poignantly wrote, “You live you learn / You love you learn / You cry you learn / You lose you learn / You bleed you learn / You scream you learn.”