Alanis Morrissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” stomped onto the stage at Baltimore’s Hippodrome this week with all the swagger and strength of the musical juggernaut of the album that formed the musical backbone of the piece. The general audience’s response was a resounding, “Wow!”
With lyrics and music by Morissette, additional music by Glen Ballard, and a book by Diablo Cody of “Juno” fame, the team has crafted a narrative around a fictional, outwardly-appearing perfect family—the Healeys. With a Connecticut suburban setting, you can practically hear the Volvo revving in the driveway. But beneath that picture of domestic bliss, the real story is the dizzying array of secrets, lies, deceptions, and misconceptions that tell the tale of many a “perfect” family.
…a fabulous score, and enough star power to light up the eastern seaboard.
Mom MJ Healy is a quintessential supermom—baking the cookies, going to spin class, and managing the house and everyone in it with apparent ease, all the while hiding a pretty impressive addiction to opioid painkillers. Dad Steve Healy works a 60-hour work week, spends way too much time looking at porn, and is totally clueless about the rest of the family’s dreams or desires. Son Nick is the fair-haired child, and from his acceptance at Harvard to his standing as the local high school hero, his desire to please everyone proves to be his own worst trait. Then there is Frankie, the adopted, Black, activist, Bi, fireball of teenaged confusion and unwavering convictions.
Touching on such weighty themes as racism, drug addiction, rape, sexuality, with a nod to the Black Lives movement, abortion, mental illness, and classism, the musical’s only real fault is that it tries so hard to be so many things that it can be a mite difficult to keep up with it all—like a musical version of “Whose Angst Is It, Anyway?”
Book writer Cody weaves the narrative around the songs on the eponymous album and, as with any jukebox musical, the fit is usually acceptable. Though at times, it does rather fall into the round peg in the square hole mode—”we have to use this song, so let’s just jam it in right here.” But the story, though predictable, is nonetheless compelling, and the fact that Cody won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical makes it obvious that it’s well constructed. It would have been nice to give Dad a little greater say, but I can forgive that.
Director Diane Paulus has as impressive a Broadway (and beyond) resumé as you’re likely to find anywhere. Her sure and steady hand guides this production pretty much unerringly. There is a reason why Broadway and accompanying awards are the gold standard of great theatre in this country (though by no means the only one), and Paulus’ production is a very good case in point.
The cleverly designed set by Riccardo Hernandez, the well-focused light design by Justin Townsend, and the terrific projections by Lucy Mackinnon add additional layers of expert storytelling. The band is on a scaffolding upstage and raised to a second story level, where lights add to the rock concert atmosphere when needed and making it all disappear when they’re not. It is very effective—and cool.
The incredibly athletic choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is so good it deserves its own star billing. Performed by this talented ensemble with a nimble bravado that makes these old bones twitch with envy, this level of dance is as contemporary and timely as anything I’ve seen from Broadway in years.
The ensemble and supporting cast are universally wonderful. One standout for me was Allison Sheppard’s pathetically believable rape victim, Bella, especially when singing “No.” Rishi Golani’s Phoenix, the hapless almost-boyfriend, was spot-on and pretty adorable in his duet “Ironic” with Frankie.
As the Dad, Chris Hoch is everything you would expect a suburban, workaholic, stereotypical Dad in a Broadway musical to be. As I said earlier, I just wish his character had been written with a little more depth and was a bit more layered. But his fine, strong voice, and his quizzical look when trying to decipher what his family is all about and his place in it, is excellent.
Dillon Klena is Nick, the Perfect Son. At one point in the story, he is referred to by a classmate as “St. Nick.” Klena hides the boy’s insecurities just enough to let us peek around his edges to see his private truths. His voice is well-trained and well-suited to this role.
As sister Frankie, Lauren Chanel is the poster child for woke—a teenage advocate for everything from transgender inclusion to abortion rights. Chanel checks all the boxes with her big voice, wide-eyed innocence, and a smile that could lighten the most depressing mood while she’s being her bratty best. The aforementioned duet with Phoenix is a highlight, as is her terrific trio work on “That I Would Be Good.”
In the lead role of MJ Healy, Heidi Blickenstaff is as perfect as a Broadway Supermom can be. I’m sure there are actual people like her running around in suburbia, complete with secret predilections towards illicit drugs or alcohol or sex or something, but somehow seeing them on the big stage is all the more unnerving because it makes you wonder, “well, damn, who do I know who’s really got a secret?” This actress runs through emotions like a flu patient’s tissue box. Everything from resigned acceptance, injured innocence, pure rage, desperation—you name it, she shows it with a skill level that is breathtaking. There are few actresses capable of this sustained level of controlled hysteria (Alice Ripley in “Next To Normal” comes close, though her character suffers more of a breakdown.) Ms. Blickenstaff’s vocals are off the chart.
It is almost never that I save a review of a supporting character for last, but Jade McLeod stopped the show, stopped the audience—for all I know, time stood still. Her powerful, raw, pedal-to-the-metal, heart-wrenching song, “You Oughta Know,” brought the house down to the ground. Her Jo is funny, touching, heartbreaking, and cheer-worthy every time she walks on the stage.
“Jagged Little Pill” can be just that—good medicine that at times is difficult to swallow. The multiple plot lines, the tackling of so many social issues, and the almost comic-book characters in some scenes can be challenging. Then somebody starts to sing another of Alison Morrissette’s songs, and you remember why you couldn’t wait to see it, or a scene hits home and lands with a satisfying emotional wallop that brings a lump to your throat or a belly laugh from your soul. This is a show with a lot of heart, plenty of dime-store pop psychology moments, a fabulous score, and enough star power to light up the eastern seaboard. So thanks, Hippodrome, for bringing it home to us. I might be too old to be “Head Over Feet,” but “You Oughta Know” how fantastic this show is!
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 14+. Please note: this production contains strong language, adult themes, drug use, and moments of sexual violence that some may find upsetting.
“Jagged Little Pill” runs through December 18, 2022 at The Hippodrome Theatre, 12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information and tickets, go online.