Review: jagged little pill

by Lynn on November 6, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont. David Mirvish presents. Plays until November 26, 2023.

Book by Diablo Cody

Lyrics by Alanis Morissette

Music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard

Additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth

Music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger, Tim Kitt

Movement director and choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Director, Diane Paulus

Scenic design, Riccardo Hernádez

Costumes by Emily Rebholz

Lighting by Justin Townsend

Sound by Jonathan Deans

Video design by Lucy MacKinnon

Music director/conductor, Matt Doebler

Cast: Delaney Brown (understudy for Julie Reiber)

Benjamin Eakeley

Teralin Jones

Dillon Klena

Jade McLeod

Allison Sheppard

And a very energetic chorus of dancers.

Alanis Morissette, the master of melancholy and angst, has her stunning 1995 album, jagged little pill, dramatized by the equally masterful Diablo Cody, and the result is a moving story of a dysfunctional family trying to find their way. It’s a rousing rock musical with loud music and mostly unintelligible lyrics because the sound system is not balanced and too many of the singers don’t enunciate. Come on, does the audience really have to memorize the lyrics to be able to understand them in the show? Do better! Please.

The Story. The Healys are the perfect family. Steve is a successful lawyer. His wife Mary Jane is the perfect wife, mother, hostess and example to her community. Son Nick has just been admitted to Harvard, daughter Frankie is a committed political activist in her high school. The perfect family. Except they aren’t. We learn from Mary Jane that Steve is never home because he works 60 hours a week to provide for his family (he says) and watches porn on his computer at work. Mary Jane takes pain killers for an accident she had months ago and is addicted to the meds. Her doctors won’t give her new prescriptions. The pharmacists won’t give her anything to tide her over. She has taken to getting her drugs in an alley from a person in a hoodie. Nick is under tremendous pressure from his family to be the perfect son and student, and probably doesn’t want to go to Harvard. Frankie is adopted, is Black and does not feel as if she fits into her family. She is romantically linked with Jo another woman at her school, until Frankie meets Phoenix in her class and is charmed by him and confused by her feelings.  

The Production. We have ‘juke box musicals’ based on the music catalogue of a group: ABBA= Mamma Mia! Or based on the music catalogue of one singer: Roy Orbison = In Dreams. With jagged little pill we have a musical based solely on the album, jagged little pill by Alanis Morissette.

Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody has fashioned a book (her first for a musical) that tells the story of the Healy family using the songs of Alanis Morissette’s album. The songs forward the story, augment the atmosphere, philosophy or attitude of the moment and even expand character. The songs certainly delve deep—Morissette is a master wordsmith when it comes to dissecting what makes us melancholy, unsettled, despairing, depressed, alone and isolated. All are aspects of what the characters are going through. She also writes about the lack of communication between loved ones, family-members, children, lovers etc. And Diablo Cody carries on that sensitive dissection and perception of relationships in her book of the musical.

Director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the technical creations of Justin Townsend (lighting) and Jonathan Deans (sound) create a production that is closer to a rock concert than a balanced presentation of one very serious album. The chorus of dancers gyrate, twist, flip and twerk creating the image in dance what the characters are going through emotionally.

Mary Jane Healy is usually played by Julie Reiber, who was off for the performance I attended. Understudy Delaney Brown played Mary Jane Healy and acquitted herself well. She has a strong voice and illuminated Mary Jane Healy’s angst, drug-dependence and worry for her family. As Steve Healy, Benjamin Eakeley realizes the frustration and isolation Steve feels in trying to break through to his distant wife. As Nick Healy, Dillon Klena is that kid who is desperate to please his parents, but unhappy in himself. The quiet desperation is so clear in this performance. Teralin Jones, as Frankie Healy gives a multi-layered performance of a young Black woman desperate to be seen and engaged with on her own terms. Jade McLeod plays Jo (Frankie’s girlfriend) with a consistency that is never one-noted.

The singing as a whole is strong, full-throated and emotional. The only problem is that you can’t make out one word of what they are singing the sound is so loud, unbalanced and the enunciation of the cast is sloppy. These are Alanis Morissette’s lyrics we are talking about—the reason we are in the room—and one can’t understand what that earnest cast is singing. Does one have to play the album to hear what the words should be? Not good enough.

Yet if one moseys down King St. for a block to the Royal Alexander theatre to hear Six there is no such problem. The words are clear, crisp and audible, and the sound is loud, but perfectly balanced.    

Comment. Please attend to the sound-balance-mix for this show quickly. Please remind your cast that they are putting on a musical of a hugely accomplished wordsmith and it’s in everybody’s interest to actually annunciate the words so we know what we should hear. I looked at Jade McLeod as Jo sing “You Oughta Know” for example, and had to try and read their lips to try and make out what they were singing, and I know that song. A bit more rigor in actually singing the words crisply, please.

Mirvish Productions present:

Runs until Nov. 26, 2023

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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