Expectations are funny things. Sometimes, someone else expectation can screw up your life. You may be expected to be the perfect mother, the perfect student, the perfect sibling, the perfect minority. The pressure of those expectations can sometimes be overwhelming, and can push you into paths you never expect.
Expectations can often color what you expect as well. When I first learned about the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical, I expected this heavy rock musical, especially with the name “Jagged Little Pill”. I’m an older fart (in my 60s) — my taste in music runs a broad gamut, from Broadway cast albums to folk to classic rock to bluegrass to celtic to dixieland to big band to … well, as you can see, a wide variety. But I had never knowingly listened to Morissette. Her classic album was not part of my vernacular. And although, thanks to the Tony nomination, I had listened to this cast album ahead of time, it hadn’t overpowered the expectation regarding this show. Going in, I was expecting this really hard rock, extremely dark and pulsating show … emphasizing the “jagged” nature of the title. Little did I know that the emphasis was more on the “pill”, as in “Mother’s Little Helper”. Little did I know that the title really referenced a pre-chorus (“Swallow it down (what a jagged little pill) / It feels so good (swimming in your stomach)”) to a key point in this show: “You live, you learn / You love, you learn / You cry, you learn / You lose, you learn / You bleed, you learn / You scream, you learn”.
Jagged Little Pill is a show that both didn’t meet my expectations, and yet exceeded my expectations.
One more digression before I describe the show … or perhaps it is more of a question: Why do we go to theatre (especially with what it costs these days)? Is it for mindless entertainment? We certainly get that with spectacles like Moulin Rouge, which at the heart of it is all flash and pizazz but no real substance or story. We certainly get that with the movies-to-stage pipeline, which bring familiarity and songs but not much new. But the really successful shows are those that make you think — that touch a raw nerve. That could be the struggles of our nation’s birth, as in Hamilton, or it can issue like sexuality as in the recent The Prom or Spring Awakening. Do we go for the comfortable, or do we go because the purpose of theatre is just to make us uncomfortable, to hold up that mirror, to make us think. (and we’ll revisit this again next week when we see Daniel Fish‘s interpretation of Oklahoma at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) next week).
This brings us back to Jagged Little Pill. First and foremost: Discard your expectations. This is not hard rock like American Idiot or Hedwig. This is more angsty ballads. As for the show itself: yes, it is dark. I’d characterize it best as a blender mix of Spring Awakening and Next To Normal. The subject matter touches on a number of triggery areas: drug abuse, rape and sexual assault, how we react to such assault, expectations on children, teen sex, gender issues. If these are triggers to you, be prepared. But the show handles them in a somewhat SFW combined with in-your-face manner. I didn’t find it too strong, but others might.
The show tells the story of the Healy family: super-mom Mary Jane, workaholic dad Steve, overachiever child Nick, and adopted minority child Frankie. Just from that description, what could go wrong. We learn over the course of the show the jagged little pill that this facade covers. This is told through the use of the Alanis Morissette‘s catalog, primarily her album Jagged Little Pill (Glen Ballard also worked on the music, the book was by Diablo Cody, and additional music was by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth). I don’t want to give too much away of the plot, but given the warnings and the description of the family, you should be able to figure out the eventual arc.
This brings us to the first assessment: story and music. I should note that this assessment is tempered a bit by poor sound, which I’m going to blame on the touring company as I know that BIH can get it right. Especially during the musical numbers, the lyrics were muddied (perhaps folks were mic-ed bad, or perhaps speakers were misaimed or mistuned). I could hear dialogue just fine. Now, if you’re younger and you’ve memorized these songs, that probably didn’t matter. But if you’re an old fart, it made the lyrics inaccessible with just snippet here and there. You get the sense but not the specifics. My advice: Try getting the headsets for the hard of hearing. You’ll probably get better sound.
That said: I found the story engrossing and relatable. There were things in this story that hit home for me, and I’m sure others as well. No family is perfect, and this showed how our experiences shape us. Not just the successes, but especially the failures. Where we fail. Where others fail. The Jewish High Holy days are coming up, and this is something I’ll be thinking about: how can I learn from my failures. This show raises those questions. That’s a good thing.
The show also touches on a number of hot topics today: sexuality and gender; sexual assault, consent, and who you believe; the current opioid epidemic; and what pressure does to us. That it raises these questions and provokes discussion places this head over heels a spectacular like Moulin Rouge. For story and subject along, this is a must see.
Now we have the next assessment: vision and execution. Diane Paulus‘s original direction, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui‘s original movement and choreography do a good job of bringing out the emotion. Place and mood is does through either projections or screens as opposed to traditional fly-scrims. This works well to immerse you in the story.
The last assessment is performance. Here I’d like to note a number of standouts. Heidi Blickenstaff (Mary Jane Healy) amazes me with her voice and her emotion. She conveys a wide range here, with a voice that handles both rock and soft well. Those who have been following her career know this well, from her first foreys with [Title of Show] to her performance in Freaky Friday. Her performance is remarkable. Also strong is Lauren Chanel (Frankie Healy), who really brings that character to life. Jade McLeod (Jo) is remarkable in “You Oughta Know”, and Allison Sheppard (Bella) does a wonderful job of leading the company in “No” (which should be a watchphrase for today: What part of “no” do you not understand). For the guys, I was really taken by Chris Hoch (Steve Healy), who reminded me a lot of the dad in Next to Normal. Dillon Klena (Nick Healy) was also strong.
Rounding out the performance credits with ensemble and smaller parts: Lee H. Alexander (Doctor, Ensemble), Delaney Brown (Denise, Ensemble), Maya J. Christian (Swing), Jada Simone Clark (Barista, Ensemble), Lani Corson (Jill, Teacher, Ensemble), Claire Crause (Swing, Dance Captain), Sean Doherty (Swing), Rishi Golani (Phoenix, Ensemble), Jason Goldston (Andrew, Ensemble), Zach Hess (Ensemble), Cydney Kutcipal (Ensemble), Jordan Leigh McCaskill (Pharmacist, Therapist, Ensemble), Alana Pollard (Ensemble), Daniel Thimm (Drug Dealer, Ensemble), Kei Tsuruharatani (Ensemble), Jena VanElslander (Courtney, Ensemble), and Charles P. Way (Swing/Asst. Dance Captain).
Music was provided by an onstage orchestra led by (🌴 indicates local) Matt Doebler (Conductor, Keyboard) and consisting of the following additional folk: Christopher Hanford II (Guitar 1), David Manning (Guitar 2), Jennifer Giammanco (Bass), Lucy Ritter (Percussion), 🌴 Nicole Garcia (Violin (Concertmaster)), 🌴 Rhea Hosanny (Viola), 🌴 Michelle Elliot Rearick (Cello), and 🌴 Brian LaFontaine (Guitar Sub). Rounding out the music department was: David Manning (Asst. Conductor), Michael Aarons (Music Coordinator), Emily Grishman (Music Preparation), Randy Cohen (Keyboard Programming), and 🌴 Eric Heinly (Music Contractor). Tom Kitt provided music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations.
The design team consisted of: Riccardo Hernández (Scenic Design), Emily Rebholz (Costume Design), Justin Townsend (Lighting Design), Jonathan Deans (Sound Design), Lucy Mackinnon (Video Design), and J. Jared Janas (Wig, Hair, and Makeup Design).
Rounding out the production team with tour and other support were: Pascale Florestal (Assoc. Director), Marc Kimelman (Assoc. Choreographer), Yeman Brown (Asst. Choreographer), Ira Mont (Production Supervising Stage Manager), Justin Myhre (Production Stage Manager), Jenn Gallo (Stage Manager), and Ashani Smith (Asst. Stage Manager). It is interesting that an Intimacy Coordinator was not listed.
I’ll note: For this writeup, I have not done my usual hyperlinking of artists. I may go back and fill that in. Not doing it saves a lot of time.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Actors Co-op (FB), 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.
For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. Looking ahead for the remainder of 2022:, the remaining September shows are Andrew Lippa’s version of The Wild Party at the Morgan Wixson Theatre, and Oklahoma at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). October will bring Sanctuary City at the The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), Ghosts at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, The Addams Family at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and To Kill a Mockingbird at Broadway in Hollywood (FB). November brings 2:22 – A Ghost Story at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Lastly, December will bring Annie at Broadway in Hollywood (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, On Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!