Venue: Theatre Royal Sydney (Sydney NSW), 2 – 19 Dec, 2021
Book: Diablo Cody
Music: Glen Ballard, Alanis Morissette
Lyrics: Alanis Morissette
Director: Diane Paulus
Cast: Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Tim Draxl, Emily Nkomo, Liam Head, Maggie Mckenna, Grace Miell, Aydan, Josh Gates, Imani Williams, Caleb Jago-ward, Mon Vergara, Baylie Carson, Georgina Hopson, Noah Mullins, Trevor Santos, Isabella Roberts, Marie Ikonomou, Bella Choundary, Jerome Javier, Romy Vuksan
Images by Daniel Boud
The story takes place in upper-middle class suburbia, where Mary Jane, a classic Connecticut housewife hiding a secret drug problem, invests extraordinary energy into making everything at home appear perfect, to all and sundry. A reckoning is forced into being however, when her teenage children’s upheavals precipitate an embrace of the ugly truth. Adopted daughter Frankie is Black and coming of age, and has lost all patience for her community’s pretentiousness, and son Nick is embroiled in a case of sexual assault, that leads us to discover the depths of Mary Jane’s personal struggles.
The book for Jagged Little Pill by Diablo Cody is carefully considered, and admirable in its commitment to incorporating social issues that are of immense concern today. It represents a strong attempt at pushing forward the musical theatre format, in order that entertainment could be combined, with something altogether more substantial in the way we tell stories, in this age of cultural reinvention. The dominant presence of political activists in the show, complete with slogans on placards, is not only a sign of the times, but a real manifestation of the spirit and intention, of this very 21st century musical.
Featuring songs from the seminal 1995 Alanis Morissette rock album of the same name, the show however is not always completely engaging. The flow from dialogue to song is often less than seamless, and choreography of dance sequences feel awkwardly dated, even if we are conscious of the source material’s age. Fortunately, direction by Diane Paulus (implemented by Resident Director Leah Howard) is full of heart, and although not completely finessed, Jagged Little Pill succeeds in making its art say something deeply meaningful, and very probably, enduringly memorable.
Performer Natalie Bassingthwaighte does an excellent job of presenting Mary Jane’s vulnerability, beautifully detailing all her character’s flaws, whilst keeping us firmly on her side. It is a charm offensive of the most convincing kind. Her family is portrayed by Tim Draxl, Liam Head and Emily Nkomo, who offer nuance to challenging relationships, that all can surely identify with. Singing for Morissette’s rock tunes however, are more powerfully delivered by Aydan, Maggie McKenna and Grace Miell, who play Frankie’s friends and lovers from school. Their ability to bridge the considerable gap between rock and Broadway styles of singing, are the crucial ingredient for some of Jagged Little Pill‘s more transcendent moments.
It all ends too neatly and too easily, of course. A big musical, it seems, can only ever accommodate “happily ever after”. The lasting imagery from the show involves young people demanding change, and it is that insistence on something better, that extends beyond the convenient conclusion, an ongoing discussion about our future. We think about the conventions that govern parameters in art, and how every production bears the responsibility of invention and improvement. We think about the way we talk to one another, and how we must learn to reach better resolutions, even if it means having to grapple with humility. Jagged Little Pill is about a youthful spirit, and all the potential we can unleash when the idealism of our young, is given a chance. The show is not quite a call to arms, but the awareness it raises about a need for revolution, is hard to deny.