Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Broadway Tour of "Jagged Little Pill" at the Orpheum Theatre

The Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, with the title and most of the songs coming from her iconic 1995 debut album, only ran for six months on Broadway, due to a long interruption by a global pandemic. But the good news is that it's now touring across the country, and you can see it in Minneapolis now through August 13. Alanis is such a great storyteller; her songs are so full of complex and clearly written characters, drama, and emotion, that they're perfect fodder for a musical. Diablo Cody, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, wrote the book and has crafted a modern story of a family dealing with a multitude of issues, that utilizes the songs well. There are occasional slight tweaks to the lyrics to fit the story, but the emotional core of each song, and Alanis' work in general, is retained. It's a messy, dramatic, and ultimately hopeful story about a family and community that loves and supports each other, even if they're flawed people who make mistakes, i.e., humans. As a longtime fan of Alanis (Jagged Little Pill came out when I was in college, but I wasn't really into pop music at that time, so I didn't embrace her until the mid-aughts, and prefer the 10th anniversary acoustic version of JLP), I loved hearing her songs onstage sung by this amazing company of actors. How someone unfamiliar with these songs would appreciate the show, I can't say, but I like to think it would stand on its own. See for yourself at the Orpheum Theatre - click here for the official ticket purchasing site, and to find information on the student/educator rush.

just a normal happy family (photo by Matthew Murphy)
The story and set design are reminiscent of Next to Normal, except that everyone's alive here, and it's a much bigger cast. The aptly named "Mary Jane" is a stay-at-home mom who has become addicted to opioids after a car accident. Due to this current and past traumas, her relationship with her husband Steve, a workaholic who's rarely around, is suffering, causing him to feel "So Unsexy." Oldest child Nick is the "Perfect" son who never gets into trouble and was just accepted into Harvard. Adopted child Frankie feels like the "Unprodigal Daughter" who doesn't quite fit in and never does anything right. Drug addiction, transracial adoption, sexual assault, and messy relationships are all tacked in this piece, in a satisfying, if easily resolved, way.

The score features about two dozen songs written by Alanis Morissette - the entire 12-track Jagged Little Pill, plus some later songs, and two new ones penned for this show. One of them, "Smiling" (which is brilliantly staged as Mary Jane is walking backwards through her day), sounds like I must have heard it before because it's such an Alanis song. Composer Tom Kitt (who wrote the music for Next to Normal) provided new arrangements and orchestrations for these familiar and beloved songs, adding some great harmonies and allowing each vocalist to bring their own particular talents to the songs. No one can sing like Alanis Morissette, and they don't try to. The eight-piece onstage rock band (including strings) sounds fantastic, and is revealed at certain times in the show, which is always a thrill.

Jade McLeod as Jo sings "You Oughta Know"
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
The standout in the cast for me is Heidi Blickenstaff, who played the role of Mary Jane on Broadway post-pan and then joined the tour. (If you're a [title of show] fan - she is that Heidi.) I love that they didn't make the center of this show a young person (most of this cast was probably not born yet when JLP was released), but someone who's the age Alanis is now, someone who probably belted these songs in the car, never dreaming that one day she'd be singing them on a Broadway stage. And Heidi can belt. She absolutely sings her face off, but is also really funny, and real, and quirky, and shares a little wink with the audience. She's matched in the belt-your-face-off category by Lauren Chanel as Frankie; their mother/daughter duets, and their prickly chemistry, is fire. Another standout is Jade McLeod as Frankie's girlfriend Jo. They have perhaps the most Alanis-like voice, and get the honor of singing the most iconic song "You Oughta Know" when Frankie cheats on Jo (with the new boy in school, played by pretty-voiced Rishi Golani). The song starts out clipped and controlled, then builds into a wild frenzy of barely controlled emotion. I hope they're taking good care of their voice, because wow.

Lauren Chanel as Frankie with the ensemble
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
The large and talented ensemble plays multiple characters and performs the fierce modern choreography (by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) with fire and grace. Special kudos to Jena VanElslander, a phenomenal dancer who sometimes dances as a character's alter ego, or their shadow, or their conscience. The show beautifully uses movement and dance to propel the story forward and heighten the emotions. Famed director Diane Paulus nicely balances the quieter character moments with the large ensemble scenes, constant motion that doesn't feel chaotic. The starkly modern house-shaped set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez, who's designed several shows at the Guthrie) calls to mind Next to Normal, with a silhouette of a house in neon, and house-shaped panels with images of scenery. The band is seated on a balcony above the stage, sometimes hidden behind a screen, and the home moves forward and back on the stage.

I'm in general not a huge fan of the jukebox musical, but this one is done well. Alanis Morissette's 25+ year catalogue lends itself well to theatrical storytelling, and the creators have done a good job piecing everything together. And this cast simply couldn't be better.