Review: Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill opens on Broadway

1_0858- Elizabeth Stanley and Company of Jagged Little Pill (c) Matthew Murphy
Elizabeth Stanley and Company of Jagged Little Pill (Matthew Murphy)

More than two decades following the debut of Alanis Morisette’s blockbuster pop album “Jagged Little Pill,” the question still lingers: is it genuinely “ironic”, or simply a case of simple bad luck, to experience “rain on your wedding day”?

And what of the “traffic jam when you’re already late” or the “no smoking sign on your cigarette break”?

With songs by Morisette (mostly lifted from the “Jagged Little Pill” album, “including the hits “Hand in My Pocket” and You Oughta Know”), a book by Oscar winner Diablo Cody (“Juno”) and direction by Tony winner Diane Paulus (“Waitress,” “Pippin”), “Jagged Little Pill” proves to be one of the most artistically sound, well-integrated and crowd-pleasing jukebox musicals to materialize on Broadway in some time. 

It eschews a backstage/bio framework (i.e. “Jersey Boys”) or campy silliness (i.e. “Mamma Mia!”) and instead combines Morisette’s catchy but deeply personal songs with an original storyline about a complicated, contemporary upper-middle-class suburban family. 

Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley, with a manic edge) is first observed in “Jagged Little Pill” bragging about her family in their annual Christmas card. In reality, Mary Jane (who goes by M.J.) is falling apart following the trauma of a recent car accident, leading to an overreliance on pain medication and straining her relationship with her overworked husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill); 16-year-old, politically militant, bisexual daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding); and 18-year-old, clean-cut son Nick (Derek Klena).

More problems ensue as M.J.’s prescription refills run out, forcing her to resort to back alley transactions; Frankie becomes attracted to a new boy at school, much to the chagrin of her quick-witted girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten); and Nick witnesses a friend engaging in an act of rape and fails to intervene. 

Even if Diablo’s script feels overstuffed (a few uncomfortable sequences could probably be cut) and derivative (especially of the 2009 Pulitzer-winning musical “Next to Normal”), it is character-sensitive and willing to delve into difficult and timely cultural issues such as opioid addiction, #MeToo, racial and gender identity and victim shaming. It also contains a lot of humor, such as when an English class debates the lyrics of “Ironic.”

Paulus lifts a key concept from “Spring Awakening” in whipping up a spirited, rock concert-like atmosphere during many of the songs, as seen in the sudden emergence of flannel and beanie-wearing youngsters (performing full-bodied, flowing movement) and an onstage band. This adds a heavy dose of theatricality while acknowledging the source material’s roots and primal spirit.

While the entire cast is superb and Stanley delivers an all-out leading performance, the standout proves to be Patten, whose burning rendition of “You Oughta Know” (which begins quietly and then escalates in intensity) makes for one hell of a showstopper.

3.5 stars

“Jagged Little Pill” plays an open run at the Broadhurst Theatre. 235 W. 44th St., jaggedlittlepill.com.