Electrifying new musical Jagged Little Pill commands attention, breaks hearts and, ultimately, inspires hope in this thrilling Australian premiere season.
The relatively rare musical that is completely of its time, Jagged Little Pill arrives in Australia just two years after opening on Broadway. Playing alongside Moulin Rouge, this means that Melbourne now has both shows nominated as Best Musical at the 2021 Tony Awards, where Jagged Little Pill won Best Book and Best Featured Actress.
Arguably the sturdiest jukebox musical to date, Jagged Little Pill soars not just on the killer songs of Alanis Morissette but also flies high on the finely crafted book by Diablo Cody. Writing economically and yet also prolifically, Cody deftly spins a compelling morality tale that draws upon myriad social issues without preaching or sinking into melodrama.
Like its closest predecessors Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, Jagged Little Pill features an original storyline; in this case, following the turbulent year of an upper middle class Connecticut family, the Healys. With characters and scenarios of the likes seen from My So Called Life (1995) to Genera+ion (2021), watching the musical is somewhat akin to watching a full season of a US drama series.
Playing such a genre on stage not only allows for the added vibrancy of music and dance but also creates a living bond between performers and audience that is just not possible even in the best episodic television series. In particular, in a role she was seemingly born to play, Natalie Bassingthwaighte swiftly establishes and then unwaveringly maintains a magnetic spell on the audience. While the best musicals usually aim for a strong central character arc, Jagged Little Pill surpasses this with what can only be described as a catharsis, leaving the audience somewhat drained yet entirely satisfied; the quality of Bassingthwaighte’s performance is a key aspect in this success.
Director Diane Paulus and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui have collaborated closely to create a seamless blend of drama and dance, the stage almost constantly filled with fluid motion. Paulus brings out the truth of Cody’s writing, with the blazing energy and searing emotion realised to perfection by Australian associate director Leah Howard. Also contributing movement direction that facilitates a cinematic flow within and between scenes, Cherkaoui’s choreography has an organic, natural vibe that distinctively captures the teen spirit of the primarily young cast of characters.
Perhaps taking up the challenge by the “rewind” bridge between “Helpless” and “Satisfied” in Hamilton, Paulus and Cherkaoui up the stakes by staging an entire song in reverse. One of only two new songs written for the musical, “Smiling” sees Mary Jane Healy (Bassingthwaighte) hazily play through a mundane day in reverse, cleverly bringing to light the micro tensions that stoke her simmering unrest.
One of Cherkaoui’s most striking concepts is the use of dance doubles to split lead characters in times of whirling turmoil. With a lineage going back some 80 years to Dream Laurie, Cherkaoui harnesses the freedom of expression through dance to enhance a character’s emotion, a device used to particularly strong effect in the key drug overdose / breakdown scene and in the flashback to an appalling act of sexual violence.
After almost two years of suffering through streamed and recorded performances for much of our fix of theatrical culture, Jagged Little Pill is a brilliant live experience. Further evidence of close collaboration, the scenic design of Riccardo Hernández, lighting design of Justin Townsend and video design of Lucy McKinnon are virtually inseparable. Massive mobile LCD screens suggest aspects of settings while lights give a rock concert vibe without overpowering the action. Further rock rumblings come from the occasionally bone shaking sound design of Jonathan Deans, ably recreated here by associate sound designer Michael Tracey.
The songs from Morissette’s extraordinarily successful 1995 album, created with frequent writing partner Glen Ballard, are an effortless fit for the young characters, perhaps because Morissette was only 21 when the album was written. Full credit to Tom Kitt, a Broadway composer himself, for orchestrating and arranging the expanded set of songs into a perfectly coherent, highly accessibly musical theatre score. Positioned overhead above the stage, Australian musical director Peter Rutherford leads eight fellow musicians in a rich, dynamic performance that is sure to please the legions of fans of Morissette’s music.
In a cheeky nod to the history of the iconic song, “Ironic” is incorporated as a poetry reading, in which the classmates speak for the world at large in calling out the fact that the incidences outlines in the song are not ironic, they are just mostly bad luck.
Bassingthwaite is ably partnered by Tim Draxl as MJ’s husband Steve. In a slow burn, Draxl brings credibility and compassion to the least showy role, singing with reliably pristine clarity.
MJ and Steve lavish affection on their All American jock son Nick while struggling with adopted daughter Frankie. In line with the work of Draxl, Liam Head plays Nick in a neatly understated manner, conveying the character’s central dilemma without a trace of histrionics. In a highly memorable breakout performance, Emily Nkomo is an absolute delight as Frankie, illuminating the stage with such star wattage that her presence is missed when the focus shifts to other characters. Nkomo’s future in musical theatre seems all but assured; future performances are keenly anticipated.
Finally performing on stage in their hometown, Maggie McKenna gives a finely calibrated powerhouse performance, capturing the self doubt and vulnerability of Jo, initial love interest of Frankie. After keeping their feelings inside all night, McKenna brings the house down when Jo erupts with “You Oughta Know,” deservedly earning an all-too-rare mid-show standing ovation on opening night.
AYDAN brings an easy charisma to Phoenix, a new kid who catches Frankie’s eye. Grace Miell expertly plays down the role of Bella, crafting such an everyday character that the tragedy she befalls is all the more affecting.
Unlike the aforementioned Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, Jagged little Pill actually has an ensemble, and quite a sizeable one at that. A set of strong triple threats, the ensemble players sing beautifully, dance up a storm and play myriad supporting characters. Special mention to Baylie Carson who convincingly plays both a bratty teen and a vulgar yummy mummy. Josh Gates bring dignity to an unseemly role as preppy jock Andrew Montgomery. Marie Ikonomou displays stunning dance skill doubling the role of Frankie.
While some musical fans may prefer to wait for An America in Paris, for younger and more daring musical theatre fans, Jagged Little Pill is not to be missed.
Jagged lIttle Pill plays at Crown Theatre, Perth from 14 May 2022, and returns to Theatre Royal, Sydney from 9 July 2022.
Photos: Daniel Boud