These days are a jagged pill to swallow–which makes the world premiere musical JAGGED LITTLE PILL inspired by Alanis Morissette’s landmark 90’s primal scream of an album more relevant than ever. Artistic director Diane Paulus has once again looked back to look forward, putting her finger on the pulse of the times and assembling and directing a tribe of artists to excavate and expand a pop cultural turning point in theatrical terms. Now onstage at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, the results are searing, exhilarating, healing, and yes, entertaining.
The book by the bold and original Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) takes off from Morissette’s raw vocalization of rage, vulnerability, love, and empowerment; Cody has crafted a book about a picture perfect but decidedly dysfunctional family. A cavalcade of too many issues tumbles out around sexism, racism, addiction, rape, gender identity, marital instability, pornography– you name it. This isn’t just “A”dysfunctional family– it is an “ EVERY” family who puts its best face forward in the annual Christmas letter while imploding between the lines. “Melt it down (you’re gonna have to eventually anyway)” goes a lyric in Morissette’s “You learn.” And they will.
I forgive the overloaded book probably because this cast and creative team so brilliantly bear the load. The “Healy” family (isn’t that ironic. Or is it?) is in trouble lead by crafty mom Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) who’s not just keeping up with the Jones’s, but demolishing them. Elizabeth Stanley plays Mary Jane tightly wound around her pain pills and ready to snap. Absent hardworking dad Steve fills his starved sex life with porn. Sean Allan Krill alerts us to Steve’s vulnerability and desperation. All star handsome son Nick (Derek Klena) is their pride and joy, but hasn’t quite sold out. Daughter Frankie is the wild card– adopted, African American, feeling out of place, and enjoying a lesbian relationship about which her parents are clueless. Celia Gooding is feisty and charismatic as Frankie, a big presence in a tiny frame releasing a voice that aches to be acknowledged.
But the ultimate scene stealer is Lauren Patten as Jo, Frankie’s girlfriend, who’s tough and blunt and questioning her gender identity. Her voice cuts through all the noise, rings the truest, and channels Morissette’s fearlessness and raw nerve. When Patten erupts into “You Oughta Know” half way through the second act, she ignites the already electric atmosphere and sets the house on fire. A two minute standing ovation stopped the show as she channeled both pain and triumph, and the satisfaction that comes with exposing your unadulterated self and being really truly heard. It’s a moment at the theater I will never forget.
There’s so much else about the show that keeps it moving– in every sense: the sets on wheels– from holy rolling church pews to sofas, hospital beds, and swing sets in this universal playground, the video projections beautiful and just enough to conjure up the context. The chorus of singers and dancers are bodies and souls in motion choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. They infiltrate the action, punctuating and making visceral the emotional and spiritual beats of these various and escalating crises; a rape, an overdose– become a dancer sliding her body around and over the space, the furniture, the characters whose inner lives she channels, the dancer both the manifestation and lingering ghost of physical and psychic trauma.
Occasionally I was aware of additional music (Michael Farrell & Guy Sigsworth) that felt patched in and too generically “Broadway” to mesh with Morissette’s poetry. And perhaps there were too many issues hammered home– the song NO (co-written by Morissette) felt as heavy-handed as the protest signs the ensemble hoisted. “I recommend biting off more than you can chew,” goes the lyric, and Paulus and company certainly have. But in this angry polarized world, Alanis Morissette’s raging anthems alive onstage point a way out: ripping the scab off, staring into the bloody mess, and airing out the festering wounds– just might lead to the relief and redemption that come with letting such unequivocal light in.
MUST SEE “Jagged Little Pill” at American Repertory Theater through July 15.