CAMBRIDGE — I’m going to get this out of the way early so I can get to the business of properly reviewing “Jagged Little Pill,” the show that employs the music of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album of the same name to tell the story of a Connecticut family sinking into a tar pit of dysfunction.
The defining song of Morissette’s emotionally incendiary “Jagged Little Pill” is a bed of nails called “You Oughta Know.” In the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere production at the Loeb Drama Center, it arrives in the second act and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as if called to attention by a military commanding officer. It was the same reaction I had when I first heard it 23 years ago. Age has not dulled the song’s urgency. It still rumbles like a thunderstorm, climaxing with a voice cracking “You-oo-oo oughta know.” Its staying power was clear when the audience at the ART rose to offer a standing ovation. The ovation came at the end of the song, not at the end of the show.
I learned that I am still a sucker for “You Oughta Know,” and that “Jagged Little Pill” (the album) has held up remarkably well.
A musical that harnesses the power of “Jagged Little Pill” is an intriguing proposition, and one that makes sense for ART artistic director and “Jagged Little Pill” director Diane Paulus and writer Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for her screenplay for “Juno.” It has instant commercial appeal and the songs, which are sharp yet vaguely relatable to anyone who was once young and confused (that means everyone), allow room for broad interpretation. Morissette never named the guilty party in the breakup opus “You Oughta Know,” therefore it could be any man, or any woman, who has ever done us wrong.
The way that Paulus and Cody interpret the songs of “Jagged Little Pill,” plus a few other Morissette hits, is to weave them into a tale centered on a perfect American family in suburban Connecticut at Christmastime. There are key words, such as “Connecticut” and “Christmastime,” that let theatergoers know that this family is struggling behind the sparkling veneer.
Matriarch Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley) may cook up pancakes so perfect that she posts photos of them on Instagram, but she’s also addicted to painkillers and quickly SoulCycling down a path toward opioid Hades. Dad Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is keeping the family comfortably ensconced in Pottery Barn furnishings and cashmere sweaters, but his wilting marriage and unrelenting work schedule have left him spending more time with hardcore online pornography than with his children.
Then there are the kids, Frankie (Celia Gooding) and Nick (Derek Klena) Healy and their friends. They seem to be battling every social problem known to upper-middle-class America in 2018. I have no idea how these kids have time to finish their algebra homework while struggling with issues of race, sexual assault, gender fluidity, gender identity, and budding and withering romances. All that’s missing is gun violence. A proper sound bite may be something like “Ripped from today’s headlines, it’s ‘Jagged Little Pill!’ Coming soon.”
But lest you forget, this musical has Paulus’s steady hand and Cody’s smart voice guiding it through the rat-race maze. Just when it feels as if the story will collapse under the weight of its ambition, a character delivers a humorous line that provides enough helium to lift the show upright again. Or, other times, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s stunning choreography takes over and lifts you out of reality and into a place of beauty. Any choreographer who can turn an onstage overdose into a writhing sofa ballet should begin preparing a Tony acceptance speech.
As the opioid-addled suburban mom, Stanley is given the heavy lifting in “Jagged Little Pill,” and she excels. At times she’s delivering one-liners as deftly as Catherine O’Hara. Other moments she’s delivering a heart-wrenching performance in some of the show’s most harrowing and trying scenes. She’s a cauldron, and there is true suspense in waiting for the moment when the toxicity of her secrets will burn through the façade she has carefully constructed.
As her husband, Krill makes for a forlorn figure looking to connect with the people around him. He offers glimpses of Steve’s pain early, particularly during “All I Really Want.” But he finally has an opportunity to become more than a porn-loving dad when he and Mary Jane enter therapy.
Everyone on stage practically fades into the omnipresent video screens when scene-stealer Lauren Patten enters. Her character, a teen named Jo who is exploring gender identity, is clearly Cody’s favorite vessel. Here’s an individual who’s written as the ultimate outsider with a fragile heart of gold. Jo is an amalgamation of pop culture’s best, wittiest teen outcasts. It could be argued that Patten’s command is a result of performing two of Morissette’s biggest numbers, “Hand in My Pocket” and “You Oughta Know.” But Patten’s “Hand in My Pocket” rivals Judith Light’s extraordinary performance of the song on “Transparent,” which is no small feat.
“You Oughta Know” is an instant crowd-pleaser. But Patten’s vocals and thrashing shoulders invoke the urgency of another 1990s benchmark, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and frosts it all with a “Spring Awakening” kick. She is able to bring the audience to its feet. Even those who have no context for the song in their lives were standing at the Loeb Wednesday night.
Frankie, played by newcomer Gooding, is perhaps the one character who manages to have a bit of fun, tempered with the fog of 2018 social problems, of course. Here’s an African-American teen who was adopted by white parents, and resents it at times. Gooding can deliver the drama, but more importantly she offers future promise (finally!) with the blush of teen romance. She has chemistry with her sensitive straight-guy paramour Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano). She also enjoys the full ribbing of her classmates when she attempts the much-maligned and grammatically erroneous “Ironic” in her high school writing class. It’s one of the show’s finest moments.
Her brother Nick, the biological offspring of Mary Jane and Steve, is the token perfect child. As Mary Jane is prone to say, “He’s the one thing I did right.” Because nothing in “Jagged Little Pill” is perfect, neither is Nick, but he’s the weak link in the show. We’re left wondering what’s really going on with the cello-playing jock. His character is left flailing, and not in an interesting way.
Nick’s shortcomings may be a result of the overambitious script. There are too many things happening here, and a bit more breathing room between the string of the messes would be appreciated. But in some ways, no matter how hyperbolic, “Jagged Little Pill” is a reflection of our lives. At least slivers of our lives. Day to day we have little breathing room. It could be a result of work, an exhausting news cycle, a continually chiming smart phone, or simply the 200 e-mails that sit in our inboxes impatiently waiting for our response. Perhaps that’s why “Jagged Little Pill” can feel overwhelming. But when a “Jagged Little Pill” revival is staged 20 years from now, it will likely all feel quite simple and nostalgic.
But right now, in 2018, “Jagged Little Pill,” feels urgent. It’s also, somehow, wildly entertaining. It is wickedly funny in just the right places. We’re reminded that Morissette’s songs are a treasure. On top of it all we’re reminded that a heap of social ills can be the basis of good theater. And no, there’s nothing ironic about that.
JAGGED LITTLE PILL
Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard. Lyrics by Alanis Morissette. Book by Diablo Cody. Additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Tom Kitt. Produced by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through July 15. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgChristopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chris_muther.