Adapting Alanis Morissette’s 1995 award winning album Jagged Little Pill to a Broadway musical no doubt created many challenges for those involved in the project.
Especially as Morissette explains: “I only wanted to be involved in such a project if the show moved me, spurred me to grow and asked something of me on multiple levels – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and intellectually.”
Obviously, she has been very happy with the award-winning stage show Jagged Little Pill written by Tony and Academy Award-winner Diablo Cody. The show, which opened on Broadway in December 2019 following its record-breaking world premiere at the American Repertory Theatre, has been nominated for 15 Tony Award nominations with Cody winning the award for the Best Book of a Musical.
At the same time Morissette’s wish may also explain one of the criticisms of the stage show – it tries to cover too many of today’s social issues. Drug addiction, rape, gender identity and sexuality, mental health and racial issues are all spotlighted in the two-and-a-half-hour show.
The issues are highlighted through the Healy family, which on the surface appears the perfect upper middle class American family living in Connecticut. But things are not as they seem.
Despite her best efforts to appear as the perfect mother and wife, Mary Jane (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) is suffering from a drug addiction as a result of a car accident and a long-avoided trauma. Her husband Steve (Tim Draxl) is a lawyer who spends much of his time at the office working. He’s also addicted to pornography.
Their son Nick (Liam Head), the golden child of the family, who has always done what his mother wants, has just got into Harvard. Frankie (Emily Nkomo) is their 16-year-old rebellious and socially conscious adopted African American daughter. Frankie is in a relationship with Jo (Maggie McKenna) who is non-binary, but then falls for Phoenix (AYDAN) a good-looking male fellow student.
The rape of Nick’s friend and classmate Bella (Grace Miell) at a party attended by both Healy children eventually brings the issues each member of the family is facing to a head with near tragic consequences.
The family’s issues are explored through the show’s 23 songs written by Morissette which include the iconic You Oughta Know, Hand In My Pocket, All I Really Want, You Learn and Ironic from the Jagged Little Pill album. Morissette also wrote two new songs for the show – Smiling and Predator.
Without doubt McKenna’s presentation of You Oughta Know is the ‘show stopping’ number so much so there was a standing ovation mid-show on opening night at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre. This also occurred in Sydney where the Australian premier of the show was held last year.
McKenna’s performance, like the rest of the cast, is outstanding.
Bassingthwaighte is totally believable as Mary Jane in a role which showcases her singing and acting skills. Her delivery of some of the show’s more light-hearted lines is spot on while her portrayal of Mary Jane’s unhappiness and desperation are just as impressive. She has an excellent on-stage rapport with Draxl who clearly depicts Steve’s frustration with Mary Jane and his marriage.
Nkomo’s Frankie is determined and committed with her heart in the right place but at the same time confused about where she belongs. She’s also blind to the hurt she causes to those who love her. Nkomo performs some of Morissette’s best known songs, including an entertaining version of Ironic, with aplomb.
Miell gives a wonderful performance in the challenging role as the vulnerable teen Bella. Head also does a great job in portraying a teenager who has to make one of the most important decisions of his life.
Supporting the leads is an enthusiastic ensemble which features in just about every scene singing and dancing, creating a feeling of continual movement. Adding to this feel is the use of lighting and numerous set changes using sliding screen panels featuring video projections.
While the topics covered in Jagged Little Pill are confronting, the acting, music, staging and choreography generate an energy which ensures audience members are likely to leave the show on a high.
Jagged Little Pill is playing at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until March 16. It then opens at Perth’s Crown Theatre on May 14 before returning to Sydney on July 9. For more information and tickets visit jaggedmusical.com
*Photo credit: Daniel Boud.
- live shows, review
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