Jagged Little Pill

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 25, 2018

Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane Healy and The Chorus in American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'
Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane Healy and The Chorus in American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'  (Source:Evgenia Eliseeva)

Alanis Morissette's classic pop album from 1995 provides the title, and roughly half the songs, for the Diablo Cody-written musical "Jagged Little Pill," now in its world premiere run at the American Repertory Theatre.

How do you build a musical around a revered set of songs? It's been done before: Julie Taymor found the artistry in the exercise with the film "Across the Universe," which used the Beatles' catalogue as a skeleton on which to flesh out a story, and "Mamma Mia!," fashioned from the songs of ABBA, achieved enduring success (these things being measured, of course, in terms of box office and sequel potential).

Cody looks to family dynamics - an eternal font of drama - for her storylines and buffs the script with a heavy gloss of the day's headlines. The Healys (and how appropriate the shared surname of these wounded people will turn out to be) look, from the outside, like an American ideal. Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is the hard-working father, putting in 60-hour weeks to ensure that his wife and offspring can enjoy every opportunity; Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) is a super-mom, ruling in yoga and spin classes and looking after house, home, and kids with flair and faultless precision even though she suffered a still-painful injury in a car crash a year ago. Nick (Derek Klena) is the overachieving son: Athletic, smart, and bound for a top college. Frankie (Celia Gooding) is the adopted daughter, earnestly beloved by her socially conscious parents but also, she fears, a charitable project. Unconsciously, Frankie reflects her parents' impulse toward social justice, toting protest signs to school; rebelliously, she wears provocative clothing and explores her attraction to best friend Jo (Lauren Patten).

Lauren Patten as Jo in American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'
Lauren Patten as Jo in American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'  (Source: Evgenia Eliseeva)

There is, of course, a darker underbelly to the Healys and the larger community in which they live. At work, Steve is addicted to porn; the high school attended by the kids is a nest of gossip, vicious judgment and criticism for trivial reasons, and the usual adolescent tangle of hormones and transitory attachments. At home, Mary Jane is trying to "taper" off her painkillers, but finding that it's a losing battle. With her prescriptions expired and her two doctors no longer willing to write fresh ones, Mary Jane turns to transactions of the back alley sort with a skateboard-riding dealer. Not comprehending Mom's struggle with pills, the rest of the family try to make sense of her manic outbursts and frigid refusal of Steve's affections.

That's just for starters. When Frankie meets a handsome new boy Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), a mutual spark quickly grows into a potential new relationship. When Phoenix asks whether she already has a boyfriend Frankie says no, but this might turn out to be something of an untruth because Jo is in midst of figuring out whether she might be trans, a tomboy, or something completely outside the binary conception of gender. And Nick? He's at risk of getting sucked into an incipient scandal arising from accusations that his best friend Andrew (Logan Hart) raped a classmate, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) at a drunken party.

With so many hot-button issues in play, there's no lack of tense, rich material to be fashioned into a compelling plot. Cody has managed this for the most part, though the material does seem spread a bit thin here and there, a few passages drag just a little despite frequent, fluidly accomplished scenic changes, and some scenes regarding the accusation of a sex crime feel shoehorned in (especially a rally for victims of sexual abuse, which stands out awkwardly). Other scenes verge on the excesses of melodrama.

Derek Klena as Nick Healy and The Chorus of American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'
Derek Klena as Nick Healy and The Chorus of American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'  (Source: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Similarly, the strongest of the show's 23 songs are the even dozen that originate with the album - even if there are occasional rough fits, like Jo's rendition of "You Oughta Know," which is introduced in the most over-the-top manner imaginable and which really only half fits the situation that's been contrived for the song. That said, however, this number is one of the production's high points, and Paulus knows it, allowing Patten's stellar delivery to stop the show (though also underlining the moment with a wash of intensely bright light: Yes, the song's performance was brilliant, but there's no need to make that too literal).

The remaining twelve songs serve the story well enough, even when they sometimes feel workmanlike and lack a sense of urgent inspiration. What bolsters these songs, and the production as a whole is a blend of creative staging and absolutely genius video work by Finn Ross that not only fills in the settings (home, school, store, pharmacy) but also lends visual form to the emotional and cognitive breakdowns the characters wade through. Jittery, blurry pictures and music-video-like imagery combine with Justin Townsend's lighting design, pushing our senses to the verge; Jonathan Deans' sound design and superlative music direction by Bryan Perri complete the immersive experience.

Sean Allan Krill as Steve and Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane in American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'
Sean Allan Krill as Steve and Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane in American Repertory Theater's 'Jagged Little Pill'  (Source: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Some inventive staging enters the equation, as well, as when Mary Jane, after popping a handful of pills, experiences time flowing backwards, or the chorus assume the form of a ghostly (or perhaps demonic) crowd that watches closely as the characters find themselves overcome with guilt, doubt, or fear; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's energetic choreography is everywhere effective, but no more so than in these passages. Elsewhere there are two striking sections of personal doubling. In one, Mary Jane wrestles with herself in an externalized depiction of a long-standing, implicitly sublimated internal struggles. In the other Bella, transfixed, witnesses her own sexual violation as though outside her body.

This show is engineered to be a Broadway blockbuster, and there's no shame in copping to it. The story is fairly schematic - but that doesn't mean Cody and Paulus haven't made brave choices. The time is more than ripe for a pop culture examination of the opioid crisis that's ravaging America, and there are no more perennially relevant topics than sexual abuse and a deeply-rooted, culturally reflexive discounting of women's and minorities' voices. This isn't a great play yet, but it could quickly mature into one; it carries traces of DNA from "Hair," "RENT," and "Next to Normal," which only improves its chances.

"Jagged Little Pill" continues through July 15 at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square. For tickets and information please go to https://americanrepertorytheater.org/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.