Earlier this month the American Repertory Theater (ART) started previews of Jagged Little Pill, a new musical directed by Diane Paulus featuring the music of Alanis Morissette and a book by Diablo Cody. Previews are essentially try-outs. Creators work on the show as the performances go along. Some things get cleaned up and expanded on, others get cut. The one thing we can almost be certain of is this: if the show makes it beyond Cambridge (on tour or to Broadway) it will be a different creature than it was in the beginning. And this is a good thing because I saw Jagged Little Pill during the first week and while there are some interesting moments, I think this show has a lot of transformations to go through.
Taking place in modern-day suburban Connecticut, Jagged Little Pill strives to prove the timelessness of Morissette’s music by creating a story very much in the middle of today’s social complexities and challenges. If you take some time to check out the internet buzz about this show, you’ll see the word “woke” bandied about a lot. And I suppose that’s what the show’s trying to show us…that it, in itself, is “woke.” But is it really? And for that matter, is the show any good?
From the start, Jagged Little Pill doesn’t show a lot of trust in the audience. It opens with Mary Jane, the matriarch of a Connecticut upper-middle-class family, writing the family’s Christmas letter. As she finishes up the letter, two set pieces are pushed together and a house is projected on them. In case you weren’t able to see through Mary Jane’s thinly veiled attempt to portray her family as normal and ideal, the projection of the house changes to show the house exploding and on fire. To me, it felt as though the production team believed the audience needed a very obvious and in-your-face moment to say that suburban bliss might be a myth. This message is delivered right away, rather than allowing the audience to watch things unravel through the story. I’m not saying that this sort of “buckle-up people” moment can’t be effective, but when used poorly, it feels very on the surface and perhaps makes a promise that the show can’t always deliver on. Overall, Jagged Little Pill shows very little subtlety and every opportunity a cast member has to walk up to the edge of the stage to sing directly to the audience is taken.
This constant call for the audience to “wake-up” can often feel tiring when it’s either too heavy-handed or continuous. The messages are valid and at times heartbreaking, but there is very little time left for reflection before moving on to the next thing – be it racial relations, rape and rape culture, the opioid crisis, marital crisis, or gender identity. And this is my main complaint about the show: the overfilled story. Any one of these topics could have been enough to fill a show, especially paired with the focus on how these issues can strengthen or destroy family relationships. After taking some time to reflect on the show and read some interviews with the creators, I feel that this Jagged Little Pill is just suffering from biting off more than it can chew (something that, contrary to the song, I wouldn’t recommend to anyone).
Morissette’s music is quite powerful and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Creating a musical around a single album can often mean shoehorning certain songs into the action of the play, but there were some clever choices as well. In particular, having Mary Jane sing “Uninvited” as a song about her own addiction to painkillers is a intriguing choice. The drugs call to her, challenge her, in some ways seduce her, but are ultimately something she must fight against.
I left the show craving more intimate moments that would allow me to engage in some of the more subtle and reflective themes. A good example of this is when Mary Jane heads to the church and sings “Forgiven” as she reflects on her feelings of detachment from both her current life and her faith. Rather than allowing a talented singer to translate the song in terms of the story, out comes a priest and a bunch of chorus members to dance on and around the pews. It makes the whole scene less about Mary Jane’s emotion and more about..well, I don’t know what. Choreography maybe?
At the end of the day, I honestly feel as though the building blocks are there for something more engrossing and interesting. Reading some of the other early reviews will prove that the material here has the ability to strike a chord and resonate with many. The challenge I see the show experiencing as it goes through the remainder of its Cambridge run is to clarify its focus. The process is a worthwhile one and I feel that the end result will be a more coherent and powerful show than the one I saw.
Jagged Little Pill is playing at the ART through July 15th. Tickets and more information can be found here.