JULY 5, 2018 – Call “Jagged Little Pill” a smorgasbord of theater diagnoses with a questionable prescription. Sharply staged in Cambridge at the Loeb Drama Center by American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, this probably Broadway-bound musical is based on Alanis Morissette’s breakout album released in 1995.
The world premiere show, which debuted May 5, is sold out through the end of its run on July 15, though a limited number of standing room tickets may be sold on the day of each show through July 14. Diablo Cody takes Morissette’s music and writes a story of suburban ills and often clever thematic associations. Despite a strong cast, a few standout performances, and vivid design, this overly busy musical ought to confront the troubling messages it delivers during its inaugural run.
The more overt of these messages involves the clearly central diagnosis: suburban Super Mom Mary Jane Healy’s serious opioid addiction. The Healys are a dysfunctional family in a state of flux. Mary Jane – played with properly scary obsessiveness by Elizabeth Stanley – has overbooked her life with OCD drive and developed a dependence on painkillers. Husband Steve – smartly underplayed by Sean Allan Krill – works 60 hours per week and watches internet porn.
The first act number, “So Unsexy,” effectively relates to their ongoing problems with real intimacy. Adopted African-American daughter Frankie – played with riveting poignancy by Celia Gooding – struggles with low self-esteem and identity ambivalence about her feelings for and intimacy with her lesbian best friend, Jo, played by real find Lauren Patten. Patten richly merits the standing ovation many theatergoers gave to her show-stopping, impassioned rendition of the Morissette hit, “You Oughta Know.”
Son Nick – rightly grounded by Derek Klena – seems like a high achiever, accepted for admission to the college of his choice. He will question his own feelings about relationships in the wake of date rape accusations against his best friend.
Author Cody, deservedly celebrated for her Oscar-winning “Juno” screenplay, does have a knack for pinpointing family issues and a good ear for the language of young people in crafting her dialogue. Unfortunately, her book moves from opioid addiction and Mary Jane’s ongoing escape from her uncomfortable reality to Frankie’s inner emotional war to the issue of date rape and activism tied to the #MeToo movement.
Paulus brings the same kind of care she lavished on Tony winners “The Gershwins,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Pippin” to “Jagged Little Pill.” Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography is snappy, if not quite varied enough.
With so much acting and technical talent going for it, this show should be a breakout hit on Broadway. Until Cody sharpens her book’s focus and this musical finds the kind of haunting adolescent angst “Spring Awakening” evoked, however, “Jagged Little Pill” may remain an entertaining but over-stuffed medication for contemporary ills.