Theater

Jagged Little Pill: A piercing glimpse of Americana

Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard and Jena VanElslander in the North American Tour of Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022.

Life has its ups and downs, and we ride the coaster feeling the gambit of emotions throughout the spin. The highs are great if you can get ’em, and nobody escapes the lows. Based on Alanis Morissette’s journey-changing music, this exhilarating and fearless musical enters ground-breaking territory and will have you, too, feeling the wave of emotions. You can’t go wrong with a production directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, adapted from a Tony-winning book by Diablo Cody, plus a Grammy-winning score. While the word ‘family’ seems to get us rolling our eyes, this electrifying production about a perfectly imperfect family will have you laughing and crying out loud.

As the production pushes the envelope, we find it is as bold as it is funny. Especially thanks to the perfect comedic delivery of leading lady Heidi Blickenstaff, portraying Mary Jane Healy, we even laugh at her trying times as she keeps her sense of humor throughout her life’s ups and downs. Others also deliver the laughs sporadically but do keep a tissue handy as the wave of emotions sometimes dispenses some pretty tough pills to swallow.

Of course, this being a jukebox musical, all actors have strong vocal ability. Beautiful vocals from Allison Sheppard, who portrays survivor Bella, are surprisingly sweet. Alas, she solos in only one song. Jade McLeod, who portrays Jo, belts out a gut-wrenching rendition of You Oughtta Know, which gets resounding applause from the audience. Lighting by Justin Townsend is purposefully intense at times, particularly during this song. Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is everything you’d expect from a Broadway musical, expertly depicting even the darkest subject matter.

Jade McLeod and the North American Touring Company of Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022.

Don’t expect this to be an ode to Morissette’s music. The musical score is used to underscore the controversial themes presented in the play: joy, pain, healing, empowerment, fear, imperfection, addiction, LGBTQIA+, racism, social responsibility and awareness among them. This pairing seems to lack continuity in some places. While the score fits the mood set by Morissette, the words and feel are sometimes changed to force-fit the production’s agenda. Other times, you feel the monkey on the back, especially with Morissette’s song Uninvited. The ensemble actor/dancer portraying what could be described as Mary Jane’s troubled inner child, Jena Vanelslander, impeccably shows us what it’s like to slide into the abyss as she melts into the dance. This is a perfect example of when the score seamlessly complements the script, and the choreography leaves us floored.

You live, you learn, and you feel life at Jagged Little Pill. The production does feel longer than it needs to be, however, the undaunted and indomitable vocals will surely keep you roused. Also, the set design by Riccardo Hernandez is mesmerizing as the pieces are seamlessly repurposed from one scene to the next, making you deliberately conscious. Some surprisingly powerful protest signage throughout the production will have you nodding your head, or at least thinking in ways you might not have explored before, especially at the cathartic end. 

PPAC presents Jagged Little Pill through January 22. Contains adult themes and strong language. For more info, visit ppacri.org/events.

Lauren Chanel and the company of the North American Tour of Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
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