*** stars

By Bronwyn Cook

When Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill came out in 1995, it’s fairly safe to say it was a different world then. Even during the time between the first production of the musical of the same name in 2018, and Broadway debut in 2019, the world has changed dramatically.

It’s with that lens that I viewed the Melbourne opening night of the production and, despite some absolutely star-making and star-affirming performances, I’m not sure the book and premise resonates with – let’s be really honest – a covid weary world.

At the centre of the Jagged Little Pill story we have the seemingly perfect Connecticut family – the Healys, portrayed by Natalie Bassingthwaighte (she/her) in the lead role of Mary Jane Healy, Tim Draxl (he/him) as Steve Healy, musical theatre debutant Emily Nkomo (she/her) as Frankie Healy, and Liam Head (he/him) as Nick Healy.

Even though the story is based in East Coast USA, the Healeys – especially Mary Jane – could easily be transported to the North Shore in Sydney or Brighton in Melbourne. They are that cookie cutter, wholesome and idealistic…on the outside.

But scratch a little deeper and you’ll find addictions, self-doubt, sexual exploration and dark secrets.

Which gets explored, and exploded, as we meet the rest of the characters in the production and the storyline unfolds. Maggie McKenna (they/them) stars as Jo, Grace Miell (she/they) plays Bella and Phoenix is played by AYDAN (he/him).

Not for one minute did I think that a musical based on the angsty, snarly, feminist songs from Morissette be anything but angsty, snarly and feminist, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as intense, muddled at times and like I mentioned, contextually irrelevant as it felt.

But perhaps I’ve grown a little jaded and impatient – seeking solutions and actions over mindless negatives at a time when so much has happened within the human condition. With the power of the #metoo movement, sexual assault, systemic racism, classism, suburban white collar substance abuse – are these as high on our social agenda and consciousness, I wonder, as we head into the third year of a global pandemic?

Putting the themes and context of the musical aside, there certainly are performances and notes of highlight.

Starting with McKenna, who with their role as Jo not only gets the shows biggest number (“You Oughta Know”, which night after night gets a standing ovation midway through the second act), but in addition solidifies their place as a stage actor with real gravitas.

Balanced by Nkomo, who in her musical theatre debut, personifies what I wrote in my review scribbles – a star is born. It’s a challenge to pick a central character in the show, but if I was pushed to, Frankie Healy would be it, purely based on the electrical energy, passion and talent displayed by Nkomo.

With her portrayal of Mary Jane Healy, Bassingthwaighte cements her position as one of Australia’s foremost leading ladies. Her transformational journey, which started with the very clever run in reverse “Smiling” and becomes gut-wrenchingly raw during “Uninvited”, is quite exceptional.

The cast don’t just have choreography, they have movement direction from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and this brings an expressive element to the show that I’ve not seen in other musicals. The dance is contemporary, emotional, haunting and without this element this show would not work at all.

The set design, from Ricardo Hernández, is supportingly minimalist, relying on simple furniture pieces but large scale video projections, to comfortably support the tone of the show without overwhelming it.

The nine piece band, lead by Peter Rutherford, suspended above the stage and made visible to the audience during certain numbers, does a rocking fine job with the arrangement and orchestration from Tom Kitt.

Jagged Little Pill isn’t subtle, it’s deep, raw and powerful. Given a different time, it has the power to be a topical and relevant dialog. I’m just not sure 2022 is it.

Images: Daniel Boud