Review by Carly Fisher
What a way to open a theatre! Although we have been going back to the theatre for a few weeks now, this week’s opening of Jagged Little Pill really felt, for the first time, to me like we were really BACK! The lobby abuzz with friends and colleagues from the industry (and a fantastically funky harp player), the red carpet in full swing, the house full and the excitement palpable...oh please never take theatre away from us again! What a beautiful sight, what a spectacular vibe!
And that energy just kept up right through the night! Jagged Little Pill is a jukebox musical in that the songs come from the electric repertoire of Alanis Morissette. Whether you’re a huge fan of her work or, like me, were surprised by how many of the songs you actually knew despite not being overly familiar with the singer herself, the music is pumping through this rock musical.
Where this show diverges from the mould of jukebox musicals that has become so popular in more recent years is that it is not a bio-musical. In the same ilk as other major hits, for example, Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages, Jagged Little Pill may offer familiar music but the story is brand new and rich with contemporary political issues that will challenge any musical nay-sayer who would deem this theatrical form ‘light.’
In fact, in many ways Jagged Little Pill calls on us to think in a way that few shows have really been able to do, perhaps since Rent. The writer, Diablo Cody, seems to have been able to capture the most pressing issues facing his contemporaries in the same way that Jonathon Larson could look at the world around him and deliver us Rent. The book of this show is reflective, unique and unashamedly a call for us to do better, to be better and to think better.
Mary Jane Healy is the perfect Connecticut mother - spin classes, hot yoga, coffee with the girls, the perfect family, the high achieving children, the beautiful house, the large christmas tree, the son with early Harvard admission...have I painted this picture? Unfortunately, as is so often true for people who present this way on the outset, she is also suffering with her own problems - including a work-a-holic husband she has grown distant to, a teenage daughter who is far more progressive than she and demons including, but not limited to, chronic pain from a recent car accident that has left her addicted to opioids and having to hide her dependency.
And people say musicals are light?!
Additionally, the musical cleverly incorporates themes of interracial adoption, gender, sexuality, sexual assault and importantly, the bystander affect. It is a lot to cover in 3 hours but the cast takes Diablo Cody’s story and Morisette’s interwoven music, and carefully yet powerfully guides us, as the audience, through these important current topics. It is a refreshing take on the jukebox musical form that is skillfully directed by Diane Paulus (with local resident Director Leah Howard watching over it here) and movement directed/choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Music is by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard with Music Supervision and Orchestrations by Tom Kitt.
Cherkaoui’s choreography is a highlight of the show that I felt I appreciated even more my second time seeing it (I first saw the show on Broadway in January of 2020). The detail and complexity of choreography, combined with the fluidity of movement used, tells a story complete without a single word needing to be said. Particularly, the ‘couch scene’ in Act 2 is a piece of choreography that, this time seeing the show, I found spectacular and I credit my increased appreciation for this piece to the stunning connection between Natalie Bassingthwaighte and the beautiful ensemble dancers who make this show shine.
Which brings me to one of the reasons I am proudest to work in this industry and to be part of the Australian theatre community. I am privileged to see a lot of theatre, both here and internationally, and I say with great confidence and pride that our ensembles are unparalleled on the world stage. Our Aussie dancers are second to none and the talents and proficiencies they exude are a reflection of the world class dance training available in Australia. Congratulations to Josh Gates, Imani Williams, Caleb Jago-Ward, Mon Vergara, Baylie Carson, Georgina Hopson, Noah Mullins, Trevor Santos, Isabella Roberts, Marie Ikonomou, Bella Choundary, Jerome Javier, Romy Vuksan, Giorgia Kennedy, Matthew Hamilton and Coby Njoroge - the brilliant Ensemble members and hardworking swings who make this show so unique.
This show closely follows a year in the life of the Healy family and despite the interesting and hard hitting themes mentioned, this show would only be half as powerful if the Healy family didn’t capture us. Natalie Bassingthwaighte takes on the complicated role of Mary Jane and vocally, I think this is one of the best roles I’ve seen her take on. This music really suits the ex-Rogue Traders star and she looks comfortable in this challenging role. Emily Nkomo stars as Frankie Healy and despite her youth, does a wonderful job through each song and in dealing with the complexities of being an Activist like Frankie. I expect we will be seeing a lot more of Nkomo on our Sydney stages in years to come. Tim Draxl and Liam Head round out the Healys as Steve and Nick respectively and, particularly Draxl, brings a great vocal power and emotional depth to the role.
Also in leading roles are the brilliant Maggie Mckenna who excels as Jo (and brought the house down...well to its feet...with You Oughta Know in the middle of Act 2), Grace Miell whose emotional portrayal of Bella is admirable and Aydan as the new guy in town, Phoenix.
The show is not entirely without flaws and unfortunately much of the scene work still felt very slow in the responsiveness between characters. Also often slow was the transition time from song to scene. This lack of diversity in pacing led to some of the scene work feeling quite clunky and I hope that as the Company continues to find its groove, this only improves to match the quality of the rest of the production.
This show won’t be for everyone. In fact, I feel confident that as you read through all the reviews of the night we will all have had very different experiences of the show. Thematically it is a lot to take in and musically it is not your traditional musical in any sense.
It’s a show for anyone keen to see a really fresh contemporary musical of important social issues through the landscape of well known rock anthems from the 90s and told with an exceptional blend of contemporary and hip hop dance styles. Whilst I appreciate that may make the audience sound a little niche, I’d say too that the show is also for anyone who is open minded or ready to learn, keen to see the value of arts in the activism landscape and honestly, anyone who just enjoys a good night out at the theatre.
It was definitely for me and I will absolutely be back to see it again when the show returns to Sydney in July.
Welcome back Theatre Royal - we really missed you!! And congratulations Sydney siders - we just got another mainstage theatre for epic musicals and Broadway transfers...I mean, we have Hamilton, Come From Away and Jagged Little Pill all on in Sydney right now! Theatre is back!! <3
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud