Review: Jagged Little Pill Is a Visceral and Beautiful Look at the Myth of Suburban Perfection

I remember Alanis Morrisette back in the mid-'90s on MTV. Her album Jagged Little Pill was ubiquitous on the radio and on a continuous loop in my daughter's bedroom. The waifish singer was lauded as an "angry white female" in Rolling Stone because her lyrics were about empowerment, calling out betrayal, and being just fine with running against the grain of acceptability. The same themes run through the musical Jagged Little Pill written by Diablo Cody and directed by Diane Paulus, based on the 1995 album. The themes of addiction, sexual awakening, sexual assault, and existential rage against the facade of suburban perfection play out with raw realism and a fearless cast.







Jade McLeod and Lauren Chanel. Photos by Michael Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

This is the story of an all-American Connecticut family. Mary Jane and Steve Healy live in a lovely suburb with their two children Mary Frances aka Frankie, and Nick. In the opening scene, Mary Jane—a glorious Heidi Blickenstaff—is writing the annual Healy family Christmas letter. She exalts the achievement of her husband Steve (Chris Hoch), who has made a partner in the firm and works 60 hours a week. He is also addicted to porn, which Mary Jane knows because she keeps tabs on everything and everyone. She is recovering nicely from that car accident last year and is "tapering off" of the oxycodone quite well due to hot yoga, meditation, and a clean diet. Blickenstaff is funny and heartrending as she races to make sure everything is under control. Hoch builds into the character as he eventually is forced to step into the role of healing his marriage and his family.

Son Nick (Dillon Klena) was accepted at Harvard, and it is all due to Mary Jane making sure that he went to cello lessons, Kumon tutoring, and the swim team. She kept his nose to the grindstone and now he is her greatest achievement as a mother. Her daughter Frankie ( Lauren Chanel) is involved in causes and seems aimless to Mary Jane. Frankie is also adopted and Black in an all-White suburban world. It is perfect for Mary Jane that she is Black but not perfect because she wears her shorts too short and doesn't have the focus to succeed. Mary Jane also doesn't notice that Frankie's best friend Jo (Jade McLeod) is much more than just a best friend.

Jordan Leigh-McCaskill, Chris Hoch, and Heidi Blickenstaff. Photos by Michael Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Chanel and McLeod give frank and wonderful performances as two girls reveling in their sexuality and friendship. They form a club of two that focuses on feminist issues and empowering outsiders. Chanel has a lovely clear soprano voice that lilts sweetly into Morrrisette's lyrics and the melismatic music she composed with Glen Ballard. McLeod has a sound that is very similar to Morrisette with a finely tuned break in her voice that adds an emotional punch to a fiery You Oughta Know. Klena manages to not be buried in the role of "the good son". His awakening comes from the guilt of being a bystander to a sexual assault. His best scene is with Blickenstaff when Nick rebels against being silent and taking a stand where his mother would rather he stay out of the problem.

There are good supporting performances from Rishi Golani as Phoenix, the introduction to a different sexual awakening for Frankie. Allison Sheppard as Bella is a standout with a smoky alto and a searing performance as an assault victim who thinks it is her fault that she was attacked. Her rendition of Predator is as chilling as it is beautiful. Jordan Leigh McCaskill is fun as the pharmacist who will not be scammed by Mary Jane's insistence that she has a prescription from several doctors. McCaskill plays a marriage counselor with great inflections and emphasis on psycho-babble about psychic wounds that turn out to be true. Carmelita Taitt has some of the best lines in the show as the wisecracking barista who checks the local mom crew from Mary Jane's spin class.

Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay for Juno and won an Academy Award for her funny and naturalistic dialogue on sex, consequences, and expectations crushed. She brings the same expertise to creating a musical from Morrisette's complex and meaningful lyrics that caught the music world off-guard. The book for Jagged Little Pill will stand the test of time just as the music does. It is brilliant to have the central conflict take place in Mary Jane's role. She is a contemporary mom who grew up in the '90s, the era that gave us the grunge in the pursuit of world grunge, Starbucks, and Bill Clinton. Mary Jane would have rebelled against grunge in her sweater sets and ironed jeans. Her addiction nearly kills her and opens her eyes to the imperfection/grunge that makes life worth living.

Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard, and Jena Van Elslander. Photos by Michael Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

I do have a bone to pick with some parts of the show. The choreography of the show is energetic and really good, but it should be more in the background. I found the frenetic moves and gymnastics to be out of place. It went well with the music but some of the moves by the featured actors came off as a distraction when they are surrounded by dancers. At the same time, Sidi Larbi Cherkaqui's choreography and movement were perfect in individual scenes such as Mary Jane's overdose and the confrontation between Frankie and Jo. The band led by Matt Doebler is great and has the same driving sound as the original album.

Overall, the direction and staging are really good and the singing is tremendous, It is worth the price of the ticket to hear Blickerstaff sing Forgiven. She brought the house down with a big voice coming out of an All-American-looking housewife. I highly recommend that you check out Jagged Little Pill during its Chicago run. It is a fun and satisfying show that gives full voice to the injustices and maladies that afflict every level of society.

The show, running two hours with a 15-minute intermission, is at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph. Tickets are $35-$125 with special rates for groups and premium tickets available. For more information and show times please visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.

Picture of the author
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.