Jagged Little Pill: The Musical Shows A More Serious Side

Things take a more serious turn in Jagged Little Pill: The Musical.
Things take a more serious turn in Jagged Little Pill: The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity?
I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner
It was a slap in the face
How quickly I was replaced
And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?

There’s no mistaking the intentions of these lyrics, from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 smash hit, You Oughta Know from the album, Jagged Little Pill. This is raw, loud, vengeful, messy, female rage at being dumped for another woman by a scoundrel of a man.

It felt like an anthem for wronged women everywhere and no doubt some men as well.

At first glance then, one would think a musical based on this song and others from Morissette's album would center around some kind of nasty breakup.

Instead, it's Morissette's more emotional, actualized, feminist and introspective writing on this album and others that seems to have inspired the Jagged Little Pill: The Musical (music by Morissette with Glen Ballad and additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth and book by Diablo Cody). Theatre Under the Stars has brought it to Houston's Hobby Center.

Yes there's a breakup of sorts and yes, it elicits rage worthy of Morissette's most famous song, but the core of the musical focuses on far more serious modern issues than simply affections scorned.

The Healys are a white middle-class American family. And like all families, issues abound

Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff) is a seemingly perfect suburban mother but for her post-car accident secret opiate addiction and entrenched frigidness in her marriage. Her husband, Steve (Chris Hoch) on the other hand is a workaholic absent father whose search history is full of porn. Their son Nick (Dillon Klena) has landed the golden child moniker by allowing his parents to determine his every move. Frankie, their adopted Black daughter, (Lauren Chanel), is in constant conflict with her mother as she tries to assert who she is, the activism she stands for and how she fits into this family that doesn’t look like she does.
It's a lot already and it gets more loaded as the musical continues.

Issues of sexuality arise as Frankie finds herself intimately involved with both her non-binary best friend Jo (Jade McLeod) and Phoenix (Rishi Golani) the new boy at school.

The final tier on this big issue cake is rape. The kind of rape that gets horrendously ignored because the victim had too much to drink at a party and was therefore “asking for it.”

If at this point, you’re wondering where the fun is in this musical, the answer is, this isn’t a show made for fun per se. Sure there are some laughs, but c’mon folks, Alanis Morissette’s music isn’t like The Four Seasons/Jersey Boys made for a doo-wop good time. She’s a strong female thinker/writer who struggles with demons and her songs deserve a musical that honors her journey by addressing serious, personal matters.

Did Jagged Little Pill need to pack itself with so many issues? No, of course not. It’s a hat on a hat as they say in the comedy world to describe going over the top with too much.

But remarkably, the musical still works and even entertains thanks to Morissette’s extraordinary songwriting prowess, the immense talent onstage in this touring production, and a set design that has finally figured out the right balance between video projection and set pieces.

Cody’s writing doesn’t just strongly center the female and non-binary characters in this show, she makes sure the entire narrative is emitted through them. As such, this show relies almost solely on the talent of these performers on stage. And holy cow do they deliver.

Morissette's Predator and No as sung by Bella, the teenage rape victim, are defiantly emotional thanks to Allison Sheppard's gut-wrenching performance. As Jo, McLeod perfectly captures the journey of discovering who they are becoming with Hand in My Pocket. Later in You Oughta Know, they go from inert bubbling anger to full-out body-shaking rage, capturing the song's energy.

As Frankie, Chanel, pitch-perfectly navigates the pop, ballad, and more rocking sides of Morissette's music. From an amusing Ironic to the defiant Unprodigal Daughter, Chanel stays true to the original sounds of the songs with just enough personal spin to make them newly interesting.

But it's Blickenstaff as MJ who steals the show on every front. Vocally her powerful, expressive, and sharply toned voice (sounding very much like Morisette’s at times) tears the roof off the theater again and again.

Match that with her alternating sardonic and desperate portrayal of a woman spiraling out of control due to addiction, and we're gifted with one of the most devasting performances in a musical we’ve seen.

Accompanying all this is a video design (Lucy MacKinnon) that mercifully accessorizes rather than over-amplifies the story. Too often in big musicals, we're bombarded with projection design that either looks like an acid trip or as though someone thought every inch of backdrop needed to be aminated.

Here instead we get thoughtful snippets of locations — just enough video and just enough set pieces to give us space and place without hogging or distracting all our attention.

Like any jukebox musical, not every song fits perfectly with the narrative being woven. Even with the too many narratives being woven in this show. But let's just take this show down to its core…the music is great, the issues are important and the performances superb.

To paraphrase Alanis herself, don’t be surprised if you fall, head over feet.

Jagged Little Pill: The Musical continues through September 10 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, visit $40-$145.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman