The Oscar-winning writer of the powerful film Juno, Diablo Cody, has crafted another beauty, this time the storyline behind the stellar musical Jagged Little Pill. The result, a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Like Juno, Jagged Little Pill is a comedic drama, with inclusion at its core. And who can go past the acerbic tongue of Alanis Morrisette, whose songs the musical showcases and whose award-winning 1995 album inspired its creation?
After nearly 20 years, Mary Jane (MJ) (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) and Steve Healy’s (Tim Draxl) marriage is in deep trouble. Living in Connecticut, they are reasonably well off. She is a highly competitive perfectionist who has become addicted to drugs after a car accident. He is a workaholic, who regularly bills 60 hours a week.
They have two children, both at school. The elder, Nick (Liam Head), has just found out he has received a place at Harvard. MJ couldn’t be prouder of her elite jock son. Adopted 16-year-old African American daughter Frankie (Emily Nkomo), who writes poetry, has enormous trouble relating to her parents. She is a lesbian (although her parents don’t know it), who turns out to be bisexual, and is heavily invested in causes.
She and her close “friend”, Jo (Maggie McKenna), are the only members of a club they have formed specifically for that purpose. Jo has in common with Frankie struggling to get her mother to understand her. Other kids at school make fun of the pair, but one day while reading out another poem Frankie attracts the interest of a new kid in class, Phoenix (Aydan). Quickly, Frankie’s head is turned too.
Meanwhile, expectation weighs heavily on the “heroic” child Nick. He unexpectedly attends a party, where something mighty heavy goes down involving a long-time friend, Bella (Grace Miell) … that he does nothing about. While MJ encourages him to keep quiet about it, the incident’s shattering impact affects not only the victim, but MJ, Nick and Frankie.
The story is bookended by two deeply personal, ruthlessly honest letters about her previous 12 months that MJ has a habit of widely disseminating via email each Christmas. Wonderfully directed by Diane Paulus, Jagged Little Pill is a rolled gold winner – pacey, pithy and pulsating –on every level.
Not only is it a terrific story with excellent music, but the vocals are stupendous – rich and powerful. In fact, so much so that one number (“You Oughta Know”) by Maggie McKenna brings with it a well-deserved standing ovation during the second act. I assure you I was among the many on my feet.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte sets a high bar, matched by her younger contemporary in Emily Nkomo. Their voices are strong and pure. Maggie McKenna shines as Frankie’s friend. The timber in Tim Draxl’s voice adds weight to his characterisation.
In fact, there are no weaknesses among the 19-strong exuberant cast, that sing and dance up a storm. The choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is spectacular (free flowing and athletic) and the staging a real feature. A multitude of props are wheeled in and out at will, with video projections setting the scene and helping to transport the action. An excellent band, located on scaffolding at the back of the stage, give it their all, providing Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill a new life.
This is a musical that delights and moves audiences. The mix of light and shade is difficult to balance well in any artistic endeavour, but Jagged Little Pill most certainly has and much credit for that goes to Diablo Cody. Put simply, it is a must see jukebox musical. It is playing at the Comedy Theatre until 16th March, before moving to the Crown Theatre in Perth on 14th May and Theatre Royal in Sydney on 9th July, 2022.
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.