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The dynamism of ‘Jagged Little Pill’ makes its flaws easier to swallow

From left: Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard, and Jena VanElslander in "Jagged Little Pill."Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

“Jagged Little Pill” is essentially a tale of two musicals.

There’s Act One, which is so didactic, so intent on checking sociocultural boxes, and so laced with grating, hipper-than-thou snark that it fails to generate much in the way of story, character, dramatic momentum, or interest.

And then there’s Act Two, when “Jagged Little Pill” goes deeper, sharpens focus, gathers force, and generally elevates the stakes. What had been fragmentary, disconnected snapshots coalesce into a fuller portrait of a family in crisis.

The family in question is the unhappy Healys, dwelling in a Connecticut suburb where they are coming apart at the seams. Mother Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff) has developed an addiction to opioids. Father Steve (Chris Hoch) has developed an addiction to pornography.


Adoptive daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel), a passionate activist who is one of the few people of color in a mostly white town and high school, is clashing with Mary Jane on a daily basis. Son Nick (Dillon Klena) has just been accepted to Harvard but seems worn down by the pressure to be perfect.

An adaptation of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album, “Jagged Little Pill” fits within the genre of jukebox musical, though it’s much edgier and more ambitious than most such works. It shares some DNA with angsty musicals like “Next to Normal” and “Spring Awakening,” TV series like “Dawson’s Creek” and “Euphoria,” and seamy-underbelly-of-the-suburbs films like “Blue Velvet” and “American Beauty.”

Diablo Cody’s heavy-handed, straining-to-be-clever book — which inexplicably won a Tony Award in 2020 — remains the musical’s weak link throughout. But static stretches don’t last too long thanks to director Diane Paulus’s trademark dynamism, further enhanced by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography.

Lauren Chanel and Rishi Golani in "Jagged Little Pill."Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Theirs is a creative marriage of like minds, an artistic collaboration that yields visual and emotional dividends. Exhibit A is an ingenious and chilling sequence when Mary Jane writhes on a couch, overdosing on opioids, while her torment is mimicked and mirrored by a lookalike (Claire Crause) who writhes along with her.


It’s been a circuitous journey to the Boston side of the Charles River for “Jagged Little Pill," which premiered in 2018 at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, where Paulus is artistic director. (Disclosure: Paulus directed the ART premiere of “Crossing," an opera by my son, Matt, as well as a subsequent production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

In 2019, “Jagged Little Pill" moved to Broadway, where it ran for two years. And now a touring production has arrived at Citizens Bank Opera House, where it will run through June 25.

All these years later, Morissette’s songs still bristle with fierce energy, and the “Jagged Little Pill” cast generally captures their thorny and compelling essence, as does the band, performing on a raised platform upstage.

The marriage of Mary Jane and Steve is fraying, and so is the relationship between Mary Jane and Frankie. Tensions escalate further when a classmate of Frankie’s, Bella (Allison Sheppard), is raped at a party, and, when told about it, Mary Jane puts the blame on the victim.

Frankie is in a romantic relationship with Jo (Jade McLeod), but her attention is soon captured by Phoenix (Rishi Golani). He stands up for Frankie when she sings “Ironic” and her classmates (correctly) point out that the circumstances she’s recounting in the song do not — as many have noted over the years — fit the definition of irony.


Jade McLeod performs "You Oughta Know" in "Jagged Little Pill."Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Jo’s jilting paves the way for McLeod to deliver a shattering Act Two rendition of the fury-filled, heartbroken “You Oughta Know," a song that is designed to stop the show and does. (At one point during Act One on Wednesday night, the show literally stopped for about 10 minutes due to a power outage caused by the storm.)

It’s a pleasure to see Blickenstaff — who has done such fine work in New York productions of “[title of show]”, “Now. Here. This,” and “Something Rotten!” — afforded such a roomy showcase.

She makes the most of it, nailing the big moments, conveying Mary Jane’s desperation when a pharmacist refuses to give her any more painkillers, and the quiet moments as well. Mary Jane has some of her own past trauma to confront. In a show that does not exactly abound in subtlety, Blickenstaff traces each gradation of Mary Jane’s journey with a quiet precision.


Lyrics by Alanis Morissette. Music by Morissette and Glen Ballard. Book by Diablo Cody. Directed by Diane Paulus. Movement direction and choreography, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House. Through June 25. Tickets start at $49.50.

Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him @GlobeAucoin.