‘Jagged Little Pill’ musical tour brings angst to Pantages
As a singer and songwriter, Alanis Morissette has one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most distinctive voices. Her raw, offbeat, intelligent lyrics, idiosyncratic diction and powerfully expressive range mean no one in the universe sings quite like her. But if you subscribe to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there is another universe somewhere in which everyone – whether teenager, adult, male, female or non-binary – sings like Alanis Morissette.
“Jagged Little Pill,” the award-winning musical inspired by the art of Morissette, which opened Wednesday at the Hollywood Pantages, invites Angelenos to visit this universe. Fans find themselves in a fictional Connecticut town populated by characters whose emotional lexicon is made up of 22 selections from Morissette’s catalog: the 13 songs from her 1995 platinum-winning Jagged Little Pill album, complemented by a few later hits , a handful of deep cuts and three bespoke additions. In their performances, these characters faithfully adhere to Morissette’s beloved vocal idiosyncrasies. They sing, hoarse, whisper, moan, belt and shout; they do this yodeling swallowing thing. They give the “BAY-bay” at the end of their sentences a bratty flourish.
Morissette doesn’t sing her own stuff in this world, even as a character, because “Jagged Little Pill” isn’t a bio-musical – that opportunistic offspring of the musical jukebox (e.g., “The Donna Summer Musical “), which has become a reliable profit machine on Broadway in recent years. Morissette is a famous faith-based writer, said to have taken the lyrics to her groundbreaking album straight from her diary. I think his bio-musical would have been really good.
But Morissette and her collaborators — longtime songwriting partner Glen Ballard, writer Diablo Cody and director Diane Paulus — are looking for something different in “Jagged Little Pill.” They have come to mirror predominantly white, suburban America, revealing – in case we missed all the memos – that our most cherished values are based on lies, illusions and denial. They subject their fictional characters to trauma and dramatize the resulting angst through seriously staged sets that sometimes seem overdone. (We can understand that rape is traumatic even without watching a slow-motion re-enactment.)
As the tragedies piled up midway through the show, I started to feel a bit intimidated by the cast. Every few minutes, it seemed, they formed a phalanx across the stage to harass me, channeling teenage angst everywhere into a silent yawn. (There were words, sure, but I couldn’t always hear them or make them out. The sound sounded muddy on premiere night; it can get better over time.) The choreography, from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a sort of controlled beater, is athletic and challenging and also a little condescending, as if the audience doesn’t remember that teenagers sometimes suffer from bulimia – one of the few issues not addressed by the plot – if a dancer did not appear to play a frenzy and purge.
Fortunately, the series does not leave its characters (or the public) in extremis but returns with a hopeful moral: Facing reality hurts a lot but it is the only way to forgiveness. Or, as Alanis puts it more succinctly: “You live, you learn.
Writer Cody (“Juno”), clearly the right choice for the job, keeps things from getting too dark with his deft dialogue and characterization. All of the families she has created, the Healys, are troubled in a familiar way but still endearing and witty. We first meet them at their annual Christmas card photo shoot, where Mother Mary Jane (the irresistible and hilarious Heidi Blickenstaff) composes their annual Christmas letter – compulsively punctuating the smug tone common to these missives with bitter asides.
After lovingly complaining about her husband Steve’s (Chris Hoch) long working hours alienating him from the family, MJ adds sharply, “I’ll tell you one thing Steve watched: hardcore pornography.” (She follows his research on the Internet.) Their son, Nick (Dillon Klena), has just been admitted to Harvard. “Our dream school – I mean his dream school,” says MJ. She doesn’t notice Nick cracking under the pressure to be perfect; he eventually breaks down and gets drunk at a party, with dire consequences.
The parents’ focus on Nick also keeps their daughter, Frankie (Lauren Chanel), at bay. She is adopted, black, tentatively bisexual, and a fierce feminist and social activist. Her best friend with benefits, Jo, is played here by Jade McLeod, a non-binary performer chosen after a cisgender actor in the Broadway production sparked protests. Although Jo has a rocky family life, they’re the kind of old soul you can count on to cheer up a brooding friend with the flippant “Hand in My Pocket.”
But when Frankie forgets all about Jo in her infatuation with a lovely new boy (Rishi Golani), Jo doesn’t take it down: Their searing rendition of “You Oughta Know” had the audience on their feet before the second chorus.
Two other scenes particularly charmed me. In one, Frankie reads a new poem at her writing workshop in high school: it’s actually “Ironic” by Morissette. Her classmates keep interrupting her to explain why the situations she describes — the black fly in the Chardonnay, etc. — are not really ironic. “It’s not irony,” said one of them. “It’s just, like, s—.” This tongue-in-cheek exchange made me love Morrissette even better while transporting me back to the mid-1990s, when my friends at the writing workshop and I were earnestly making the same points.
The second scene belongs to MJ: While singing “Smiling,” a haunting ballad Morrissette wrote with Michael Farrell for this musical, MJ performs his daily duties in a pain-relieving haze, but in reverse, the scenes of his morning reform and dissolve. around her as she backs away along her well-worn route. The graceful and neat staging is a triumph.
“Jagged Little Pill” didn’t give me as much gossip behind the music about Morrissette’s life as I would have liked. (Will she ever tell us if “You Oughta Know” is really about Dave Coulier?) But it still sings in her voice, driven by her talent, courage and ultimately optimistic worldview.
“Little Jagged Pill”
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Sunday. Ends October 2
Tickets: From $39
Contact: (800) 982-2787 or BroadwayInHollywood.com Where Ticketmaster.com
Operating time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with an intermission