Review: Jagged Little Pill thrills with raw energy and strong message at Fisher Theatre through 2/26
LANSING, MI–Jagged Little Pill is one of those musicals that leans hard into current events and is willing to push the boundaries of the genre. This review is for the Lansing performance at The Wharton Center, but it is now playing at The Fisher in Detroit through Feb. 26th.
Yes, it is a jukebox musical, but each song fits snugly into the narrative. It doesn’t stretch the way many jukebox musicals have to. Yes, it is based on an album, but there is a strong story and the dialog keeps it from being a rock opera.
There is a lot to be impressed by in Jagged Little Pill, but foremost is that it truly embraces a multigenerational audience, telling a story so rich in themes that there is the potential for people from many different walks of life to connect with. Parenting pressure? Addiction? Strained marital relations? Overwork? Rape? Sexual identity? School pressure? Perfectionism? Teen relationships? It’s all there and handled in a way that feels authentic and raw.
The musical ends with the song “You Learn” and that feels like an apt summary to what the previous two hours were all about. There are lessons to be learned for wherever a person is in their journey and Alanis Morissette’s music and lyrics are a candid and passionate teacher.
Often you leave a show with a particular personality seared into your memory. While the leads in this show were outstanding, the real star of the show is the ensemble or the “chorus” as they are listed in the program. Of the 23 songs, they perform in all but three of them. Those few times the chorus doesn’t accompany the songs, it dramatically underlines the isolation the characters are experiencing in that moment.
Choreography is by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and he uses the chorus the way a sculptor might use clay. They do more than just fill out the stage picture. With highly acrobatic, modern dance moves, the chorus provides a physical interpretation of the inner life of each named character. They set the mood of each song, often ramping up the anger and the frustration with visual, in-your-face moves. It is rather amazing that these company members can not only get through the show, but that they do it eight times a week. It is also clear that Cherkaoui has both balletic and rock star background and he is able to combine multiple genres to use whatever movement best tells the story.
At the center of the musical is Mary Jane Healy, the middle-class, middle-aged, middle America mother who believes it her job to make everything appear perfect. Heidi Blickenstaff, who also performed the role on Broadway, was magnificent in her ability to immediately flash between perfection and utter despair and chaos in a role that was dually demanding of vocals and body movement. Her belting was breathtaking.
More importantly, she drew the audience into the story and forced them to care, even when her actions were unsympathetic and she was not entirely likeable. But let’s be clear, a woman doesn’t have to be likeable to be powerful and have important things to say. Mary Jane is a woman with real struggles doing the best that she can while her world falls apart around her.
Her daughter, Frankie Healy, played by Lauren Chanel, brings great charisma and charm to the part of the socially active 16-year-old who is determined to fight against injustice wherever she finds it. Chanel puts in an intelligent performance with all the earnestness that teenagers can possess.
Frankie’s girlfriend, Jo, played by Jade McLeod, is equally charismatic, a student with so much appeal that it is easy to see why the two are drawn to each other and why they are in love. McLeod has musical strength that several times won her awed applause from the audience, especially as she sang Morissette’s power ballads “You Oughta Know” and “Hand in My Pocket.”
The two men in the family, father Steve played by Chris Hoch and son Nick played by Dillon Klena, have a tendency to fade into the shadows of the brilliantly portrayed women. They have their own issues, but they are mostly relational ones to other characters in the show. Indeed, they are given parts very similar to what women usually experience. For what they are given to work with, they are quite competent even if they don’t blow you away the way their female counterparts do.
Allison Sheppard’s Bella is heartbreaking as she tries to come to terms with not only being assaulted, but having few people who believe or support her. Her plight is tragic and Sheppard opens a window on the acute suffering her character goes through.
Rishi Golani’s Phoenix is adorable the way he falls in love with Frankie, oblivious to her relationship with Jo.
One of the beauties of Jagged Little Pill is that Morisette and book writer Diablo Cody do not try to give us any “perfect” characters. All of them are flawed, all of them need each other and all of them are desperate to find some way to figure things out and to heal.
Justin Townsend’s lighting design plays an important role in telling the story and the work done is impressive. There are sharply contrasting lights that sometimes block out the faces of the chorus, putting them in shadow to let them be seen even as they are obscured. It underlines the idea that they are presenting the unspoken inner lives of the characters. The spots help pick out characters as they emerge from the crowd and contributes to the story telling by sometimes isolating people and other times letting them share a spot in moments of unity and connection.
Matt Doebler conducts the eight-person band who performs on a lifted platform at the back of the stage. With a soundtrack drawn straight from an iconic album that took the world by storm more than 25 years ago, the band tunes in to the alt-rock vibe and accompanying volume. The music pulls the audience into a rock concert and then hammers them with the emotional content of each song.
Jagged Little Pill covers a lot of ground with challenges and issues that are as current as you can get. There was a gut-punching moment at Wharton Center which is adjacent to the East Lansing school district where the past few weeks have been home to angry meetings and student walk-outs in response to incidents of violence. A character on stage holds up a sign about how students should be able to feel safe in school. There was a collective gasp in the moment of silence and then applause spread through the audience, applause that was affirming rather than appreciative.
There were many moments like that which hit in different ways for different people. If you’re thinking about going, know that it is a musical that strikes out with honesty and challenges the audience to think about important topics. It has strong language, adult themes, drug use, alcohol use, sexual violence and bullying. They can definitely be triggering, but they may also be cathartic.