By Sharon Eberson
It was never going to be nice and easy, if that’s what you are looking for in a musical. It had to be rough and raw for the theatrical world built around Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, the seminal album filled with grungy, angst-ridden cries that seem to be torn directly from her psyche.
Rare, however, is a claim that can be made by both the musical and the music.
Jagged Little Pill, the show, is the result of a collaboration with some of Broadway and London’s top talent – director Diane Paulus, music supervisor Tom Kitt, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and more.
It is that rare jukebox musical that lives up to its inspiration.
The show now at the Benedum Center successfully melds existing songs and an original story, matched by a powerhouse touring cast.
Kudos go to Diablo Cody (Juno) for the Tony-winning libretto that pulls it all together, packing a long list of coming-of-age events and family strife into one tumultuous suburban Connecticut household.
If that sounds like a hard pill to swallow, you perhaps are not one of the millions of listeners who engaged with Morissette’s top-of-the-charts 1995 album.
In Jagged Little Pill the Musical, the troubles are spread out through an outwardly perfect suburban family.
The Healys – perfectionist, painkiller-addicted mom MJ; workaholic, sex-starved dad Steve; eager-to-please, Harvard-bound Nick; and rebellious, not-so-sweet-16 Frankie – are building toward an implosion.
A ticking time bomb of emotions will be ignited by a trauma that has repercussions inside the Healy household and beyond a lot of white picket fences.
Along the way, the bodacious cast and ensemble rock out hard, help and hinder, fight and forgive, and mine Cody’s well-timed humor within often heavy scenes.
Two numbers, in particular, stand on their own as musical-theater gold.
Powerhouse Broadway veteran Heidi Blickenstaff as Mary Jane – MJ – is a wise-cracking mess as she sinks further into addiction, the result of painkillers taken after a car crash.
The song Smiling, in which lyrics recount someone hitting bottom but who “keeps on smiling, keeps on moving,” follows a neighborhood sequence that begins to move backward in time. Blickenstaff and company perform a stunning rewind of events as she sings about moving ahead, made even more effective as it contrasts with some of the show’s raucous numbers.
As Jo, Frankie’s nonbinary friend with benefits, Jade McLeod is a gale force of nature out of Canada, with a voice that reminds us why the Grammy’s picked You Oughta Know as Best Rock Song and Female Vocal Performance of 1996.
McLeod earned the longest ovation of opening night, rocking out with a powerful rendition of the song about a lover’s betrayal. It is aimed at her pal Frankie (Lauren Chanel), who is wrapped up in her own world of hurting and grasping at the light, namely Phoenix (Rishi Golani), a charming new boy at school.
Chanel’s Frankie, the Healy’s Black adopted daughter, is all about expressing her frustration with parents who expect her to fit into their lily-white lives. Frankie’s answer to her home life is to start social justice initiatives at school, where Jo is her only ally.
MJ, grasping at straws with her daughter, points out that she, too, has helped in causes, by making brownies – “blondies, actually.”
Frankie, always quick to shoot down her mom’s attempts, comes back, “Even your brownies are white.”
The actors inhabiting these familiar, flawed characters allow what might otherwise be simple archetypes to be realized as quirky individuals. For example, Klena’s Nick as the conflicted good son and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Hoch as the well-meaning but oblivious father each break the mold when faced with tough challenges.
The house of cards is already tumbling when student Bella (Allison Sheppard) is raped by a popular jock at an alcohol-soaked party, with Nick in attendance. The crime has ripple effects that may finally tear the Healys apart.
The dense plot – three hours including intermission – is punctuated by an ensemble whose explosive movies manifest the characters’ emotional highs and lows.
Jagged Little Pill features an eight-piece band and has a tendency to lean into its rock-show roots, both in volume and lighting. If you are unfamiliar with the songs, it can be difficult to pick out the words from the music at times.
The musical is bookended by MJ creating one of those Christmas letters about family accomplishments that, judging by the audience reaction, we would rather not write or receive. What starts as a description out of a Donna Reed-like sitcom ends in something that reflects the jagged events we have just witnessed.
If you’re a survivor, as Morissette has written: You live, you learn / You love, you learn / You cry, you learn / You lose, you learn / You bleed, you learn / You scream, you learn …
And if you’re lucky, you make one of the best-selling albums of all time, and then have it made into a musical with emotional gravitas and exhilarating performances.
And, as luck would have it, you survive technical difficulties to finish the show on opening night in Pittsburgh.
Ten minutes into the performance on Tuesday, with the Healy family mid-breakfast scene, came the announcement that there would be a pause, and the curtain came down. After about 15 minutes came the good news that the show would go on. The cast picked up from a few lines earlier in the scene, and Blickenstaff ad-libbed that she had made pancakes, “AGAIN!,” to appreciative applause.
Only days earlier, a show in Providence, R.I., had been paused due to technical issues, and then had to be canceled.
Now that would have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh presents Jagged Little Pill is at the Benedum Center, January 24-29. Tickets and details https://trustarts.org/production/81541/jagged-little-pill