REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
In 1995, Canadian singer songwriter Alanis Morissette released her Jagged Little Pill album. Characterised by its lacerating lyrics, the album catapulted Morissette to superstardom and has sold upwards of 33 million copies worldwide, making it one of the highest selling albums of all time. Rachel Syme, writing for the New York Times in 2019, described Jagged Little Pill as having “undeniable power” and “an emblem of young women’s anger in the 1990s.”
In 2013, plans to create a musical around Morissette’s seminal album were revealed, and last week, the Australian tour of Jagged Little Pill officially opened at Sydney’s Theatre Royal – the first production of the show staged outside of North America.
With a book by Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for her screenplay for Juno) and directed by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus, the show tells the story of an upper middle-class family in suburban Connecticut. Mary Jane (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) is mother and housewife; her husband, Steve (Tim Draxl), is a successful lawyer; Frankie (Emily Nkomo), is their 16-year-old rebellious and socially conscious adopted African American daughter; and Nick (Liam Head), is their high achieving biological son, who’s just been admitted to Harvard.
Thanks largely to Mary Jane’s careful curation of the family’s public image, the Healys appear to be essentially the perfect family. Quickly, however, we learn that scratching the surface reveals a family in crisis. Mary Jane is secretly struggling with an opioid addiction, Steve is hooked on hardcore pornography and work, and Nick feels the crushing pressure of living up to his parents’ exceedingly high expectations. Frankie, meanwhile, is trying to carve out her own identity, and feels immense frustration because of her parents’ inability to recognise that she is racially different to the rest of the family. She’s a passionate political activist, alongside her best friend, Jo (Maggie McKenna), who is non-binary and whose mother fiercely opposes their expression of their gender identity.
In short, Jagged Little Pill endeavours to take a snapshot of modern life by canvassing several subjects (including addiction, transracial adoption, gender identity, marriage breakdown, and mental health). One of the issues it foregrounds is sexual assault, when Nick’s classmate, Bella (Grace Miell), becomes the target of a predatory student at a party. There is a lot to absorb over the show’s 2-hour 45-minute run-time (too much, some have argued), but this is a conversation-provoking piece that will, like most theatre, resonate with different audiences for different reasons. Ultimately, the hopeful message with which it leaves us is that people are innately flawed, make mistakes, and that our best way forward is to acknowledge those mistakes and learn from those experiences. Being human is about growth.
The music (written by Morissette and Glen Ballard, with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth, and all lyrics by Morissette) makes for a dynamic musical, transcending the time in which it was written and the original context of its songs. Some tracks incorporated appeared on subsequent Morissette album releases, and some were written specifically for the show. The whole score, however, offers a cohesive listening experience – “Smiling” (one of the new cuts, underscoring Mary Jane’s slow unravelling through addiction) fits neatly alongside ‘Ironic’ (Morissette’s 1996 smash hit, which appears in Act I and lampoons the enduring criticism that the things it describes aren’t actually ironic.)
The cast brings together seasoned performers with others appearing on a professional stage for the first time. Bassingthwaighte is wonderfully cast as matriarch Mary Jane, adeptly giving us the character’s fall from grace and the power of the addiction that gradually causes that descent. The role of Mary Jane is both a tough act and sing, but Bassingthwaighte skilfully delivers on both fronts. She has good chemistry with Draxl, who plays the workaholic Steve Healy.
Both making their professional debut, Head and Nkomo are assets to this production. Head’s depiction of the pressured and apprehensive teen feels sincere and well judged. Nkomo’s Frankie is fervent and fiery, but also naïve, and capable of callowness and wounding those she loves. From the outset, Nkomo demonstrates her impressive vocals and consistently handles the score with ease.
When it comes to standout moments, it’s difficult to go past McKenna’s gut-punching, purgative performance of one of Morissette’s very best songs, ‘You Oughta Know’, which prompted a mid-show standing ovation on opening night. McKenna has a powerhouse voice and naturally conveys convincing emotion in song. Their portrayal of Jo is a highlight of Jagged Little Pill.
Miell makes an indelible impact as Bella, who faces judgment from peers and disbelief from adults after coming forward to report a sexual assault. They deliver one of the show’s most disturbing and affecting scenes.
The set, created by Ricardo Hernández, primarily consists of large video screens (with projections by Lucy Mackinnon) and feels apt when paired with Morissette’s music and the show’s contemporary narrative. Justin Townsend’s lighting design perfectly complements the performers’ high energy and, in key moments, appropriately evokes an arena concert feel. Meanwhile, Australian Musical Director/Supervisor Peter Rutherford has the tough task of satisfyingly recreating Morissette’s back catalogue with a live band, and the band’s performance here results in a rich live reproduction of each track.
It’s still early days for Jagged Little Pill in Australia, and there is still room for performances to further develop, and for the show to run as a completely seamless event and with more finesse. This reviewer looks forward to revisiting the show down the track to see how the production evolves as every cast member (principal and ensemble) grows into their character.
But, as it is, Jagged Little Pill offers Australian audiences a memorable return to the theatre after an extended break. Showcasing the skills of a wonderfully talented cast, it’s a timely reminder of the need to do better, and the distance we still need to travel. To top it off, it’s underscored by the iconic music of Morissette, which is likely to be with us for the next 25 years and beyond.
Photo credit: Daniel Boud
JAGGED LITTLE PILL – TOUR DETAILS
SYDNEY – THEATRE ROYAL SYDNEY: PLAYING NOW UNTIL 19 DECEMBER 2021
MELBOURNE – COMEDY THEATRE: FROM 2 JANUARY 2022
PERTH – CROWN THEATRE FROM 14 MAY 2022
RETURN SYDNEY SEASON – THEATRE ROYAL SYDNEY: FROM 9 JULY 2022
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