“Jagged Little Pill” – Too Much Plot, Too Many “Hot-Button” Issues

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By Karen Isaacs

Jukebox musicals come in many forms – revues, biographies and plotted shows. Of course, there are infinite variations and combinations.

Jagged Little Pill, based on the Alanis Morissette, 1995 album of the same name, is a plotted show. Many elements work effectively, but its flaws are common to most shows of the genre.

The challenge is creating characters and story into which the music will fit seamlessly and which will be appropriate for the story and the characters. While a huge success, Mama Mia! did not effectively do it. The songs felt shoe-horned into the show; it’s a problem for many such attempts.

Morissette’s songs are good; they have stood the test of time. They are performed effectively. The problem is the fit between the songs and the characters and stories.

In this case, there is too much story. The show has a main plot plus two subplots which while they intersect each adds multiple characters and issues. Diablo Cody, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno, is credited with the book.

At its heart, it is a story of an upper, middle class family. In fact, within the first few minutes, it reminded me of one of my favorite films, Ordinary People. We have a mother who wants everything to be perfect but who reveals that not everything is quite as she paints it, particularly with her husband and their marriage. You have two teenage children, each with typical and atypical problems. Add to that the issues of sexuality and sexual assault and you have enough plot for at least two shows.

The result is that just as you get really interested in a plot or characters, it all shifts to another aspect of the story. The husband-wife dynamic is just sketched yet with the story beginning and ending with the mother, it would seem her journey and the relationship should be primary. For long parts of the show, it disappears as we focus on the daughter (Frankie), her girlfriend (Jo) and Frankie’s boyfriend (Phoenix). Frankie, by the way is African American and was adopted. We get caught up in that story and suddenly are asked to get involved with the son (Nick) and his friend (Andrew) and Bella, the girl that Andrew may have assaulted at a party at which Nick was also present.

While the subplots involving the siblings do combine at some point, we still aren’t sure where we should focus.

This leads to lesser characters sometimes getting the standout songs from the original album. Jo sings “You Oughta Know” in the second act despite being more of a minor character in the work.

All of the album’s songs are in the show as well as other Morissette songs. She is credited with the lyrics and the billing says music by her and Glen Ballard. But then there is a credit to Michael Farrell & Guy Sigsworht for “additional music.” No clarification nor indication is provided or what these two contributed to the show: dance music? Underscoring? Tom Kitt (who wrote Next to Normal) is given prominent billing for music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements.

If you loved the original songs, you will find the show enjoyable. . The cast is energetic and talented. The choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who is also credited with “movement”) is modern. Director Diane Paulus keeps things moving and keeps shifting our focus.

It’s hard to determine who is the leading characters?  Is it the excellent Elizabeth Stanley as the mother, or Celia Rose Gooding as Frankie? Both are excellent in their roles, but this confusion reflects the problems with the plot. It doesn’t help that at times Frankie is a typically self-absorbed, clueless teenager oblivious to the feelings of other people. Each is good as are the other cast members – Derek Klena as Nick, Lauren Patten as Jo and Kathryn Gallaher as Bella.

By the end, I just felt as dissatisfied. First, by the attempt to put every modern issue and/or problem into the story, and second, by the feeling that the authors and director were not critical of the aspirations of the parents. To want your children to succeed, to applaud admission to Harvard, is obviously a major no-no.

Jagged Little Pill is at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 45th Street. Tickets are available throughTelecharge.com

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