Jagged Little Pill
Lauren Chanel (Frankie) and the company of the North American tour of Jagged Little Pill; Credit: Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

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Nineties nostalgia has many parts of pop culture in a chokehold, and that includes the theater. Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill, is an undeniable classic that racked up awards and spawned a remarkable number of singles, so it’s no surprise that it’s been turned into a jukebox musical. The surprise is how well it works, translating rock songs for the stage, recontextualizing them, and giving them new meaning.

Unlike many jukebox musicals, this family domestic drama has almost nothing to do with Morissette herself. Mary Jane Healy (Heidi Blickenstaff), also known as MJ, is your typical Connecticut Stepford wife, and Blickenstaff (who originated the role on Broadway) is fantastic at portraying the carefully concealed chaos beneath her perfect surface. Unfortunately, the “jagged little pills” in question are the opiates she’s become addicted to after a car crash. She’s “tapering off, taking a little less each day,” and that attempt goes predictably poorly as her family gets caught up in a town scandal and her outwardly perfect life starts to go off the rails. 

The cracks that have formed in the family’s perfect facade are revealed early on. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernández, is framed by the glowing outline of a simplified house shape, and features panels to project images on. When the Healys are at home, they often depict the exterior of a suburban home, bisected to show a house divided. MJ’s addiction is outlined in “Smiling,” a beautifully staged number performed with the ensemble moving as if in reverse as MJ rewinds through her day, from the moment she scores pills from a drug dealer back to the moment she runs out of them that morning. “So Unsexy” feels a bit different coming from a man rather than a woman, and though Chris Hoch, who plays MJ’s husband, Steve, isn’t the greatest belter, this allows him to seem like a normal and vulnerable guy. Daughter Frankie (Lauren Chanel) is adopted, a Black girl who doesn’t feel she fits into her very White family or town; Chanel sells the character’s conviction with a sweet performance and killer pipes. She and her friend-who-could-possibly-be-more, Jo (Jade McLeod), bond over being the odd ones out in their families in a very fun version of “Hand in My Pocket.”

Jade McLeod (Jo) and the North American Touring Company of Jagged Little Pill; Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022

Near the end of the first act, the two Healy kids—Dillon Klena plays Frankie’s brother, Nick—attend a party where classmate Bella (Allison Sheppard) is sexually assaulted by Nick’s friend. Nick does not intervene. As stories and pictures from the party leak on social media, Bella becomes an outcast, and Frankie attempts to support her. When MJ hears what’s happened, she tells Nick not to let his involvement come out, lest it affect his Harvard trajectory. MJ later reveals her own sexual assault experience for which she blames herself. Frankie confronts Nick for not helping Bella in the song “Wake Up.”

“What goes around never comes around to you,” the chorus states. But in the second act, everything from the first act comes back around as the characters face the consequences of their actions.  

“Unapologetically honest” is a phrase that gets tossed around to describe Morissette’s music, and honesty and revealing one’s truth are major themes of this show. As the play goes on, the characters must come clean about their relationships, sexuality, and the fact that they need help. Jo confronts Frankie for dating someone else in a smashing rendition of “You Oughta Know,” and McLeod’s performance smartly centers Jo’s heartbreak, with just a dash of the fury from the original song. MJ and Bella have a heartbreaking conversation, followed by a well-executed but disturbing choreographed restaging of a sexual assault that shuffles through MJ, Bella, and a dancer in the place of the victim. Though all these stories are given a hopeful future, the show resists tying a neat bow on any of them, suggesting that, though these characters have begun to heal, the journey will be ongoing. 

Jagged Little Pill, written by Alanis Morissette, Glen Ballard, and Diablo Cody and directed by Diane Paulus, runs through March 26. thenationaldc.com. $80–$115.