Review by Michelle Sutton
Jagged Little Pill is a jukebox musical based on the 1995 album of the same name by Alanis Morissette. Inspired by the themes explored in the songs and the lyrics Morissette wrote at 19 years old, the musical follows middle-aged wealthy super-mum Mary Jane and her family through a year of struggle and growth. The Australian production is basically a replica of the Broadway production directed by Diane Paulus but with an Australian cast. The Australian run has been supported with Leah Howard associate directing locally.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte’s dry comedic delivery as Mary Jane is a standout. Bassingthwaighte utilises her acting expertise and gets the most out of every line she is given. I wish the show had honed in on her character more, as Morissette’s songs on Jagged Little Pill are introspective, stream-of-consciousness style songs and would lend itself to focussing on one protagonist’s interior world and journey, rather than offering fragmented pieces of the 7 lead character’s journeys which ends up being confusing and unsatisfying.
The biggest positive I took away from the show was that it is an amazing showcase for young Australian talent. The production features many performers still in their late teens or early 20s, allowing them to bring their energy and passion to a professional stage. Kudos must be given to casting director Natalie Gilhome, for taking a chance on the fresh performers who greatly enrich the dynamics of the show. AYDAN delivers an endearingly and charming performance as Phoenix. Grace Miell as Bella stands out with a striking deep voice and affectingly restrained performance. Emily Nkomo as Frankie shows that she is a true triple threat and star in the making. Despite her character being written in a limiting way she manages to prove that she is one to watch in the theatre world.
Maggie McKenna is a scene stealer, with a beautiful voice that cuts through and a powerful belt that is the star of many songs. Jo is written to be resilient and funny and is possibly the easiest character to root for, but McKenna takes this to a whole new level imbuing Jo with authenticity, honesty, charisma and ease. McKenna’s “You Oughta Know” is undoubtedly the high point of the entire show. It is a world class performance, which thankfully uplifts the second act that becomes predictable. At the end of McKenna’s performance there is mid-show standing ovation and for good reason: it is the only point of the show that is truly transcendent and resonates, where the uninhabited rage and hurt and grief and longing of Morisette’s music shines through in its beautiful, gruelling, vulnerable glory.
Unfortunately, in a lot of the musical numbers the vocals cannot be heard over the band which is a huge shame considering the importance of the lyrics to the show. The ensemble is extremely talented and a breath of fresh air. The choreography in the opening number is exhilarating and exciting, however there are other songs where the ensemble is deployed unnecessarily to dance during a domestic scene or conversation where the lyrics and music alone would be more than enough to convey the emotion.
Jagged Little Pill has a big heart and good intentions, seeking to explore a multitude of social issues at once. Ironically the show suffers from a lack of self-awareness, sometimes accidentally reinforcing tropes and prejudices. I personally do not like rape scenes in musicals and would prefer they didn’t exist, even more so when the assault has already been described in detail several times in multiple other scenes-to me it feels gratuitous and unnecessary. However, a theme in Jagged Little Pill is that nothing is implied or subtle, everything is extraordinarily heavy-handed, there is no space left for nuance or for the audience to come to any realisations on their own. The plot itself is probably the weakest point of the musical. I think writer Diablo Cody’s frequent super-niche American references do not land with an Australian audience, and the vague nature of the script hinders the audience from being able to recognise the characters as real people we could know.
Most of the weak points of Jagged Little Pill are to do with the book and actual writing of the musical, and not at all to do with the cast and creatives of the Australian production. It is sometimes funny and entertaining, but is trying to do too much, obsessed with the idea of being profound, life-changing and relevant it fails the basics: telling a good story with substance. Despite the weak narrative material given, the cast still impresses, with an incredibly hopeful and exciting display of the talent and passion of a new generation of musical theatre performers. I am excited to see what roles they take on next.
Jagged Little Pill has a content warning for mature themes, drug use and sexual violence.