Alanis Morissette joins the ranks of Billy Joel, Green Day and ABBA with “Jagged Little Pill,” the latest pop music-turned-musical, at the Nederlander Theatre. Directed by Diane Paulus and featuring the lyrics and music of Morissette, the sparse set uses projection on large, opaque surfaces to create scenery, filling the negative space with a cadre of nimble dancers who jump in and out of musical numbers; choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
The show centers on waspy, middle-class suburbanites, The Healy family, each of whom are suffering from a different existential crisis. After surviving a serious car accident, Mary Jane (Heidi Blickenstaff) resumes her duties as the perfect mother and host, that is, as long as she has “mother’s little helper” at her fingertips. Workaholic husband Steve (Chris Hoch) feels neglected by his wife, complaining that at bedtime “all we do is sleep.” The adopted daughter, Frankie (Lauren Chanel), experiences the intersectionality of being Black in an otherwise white family and that she is a thirteen-year-old girl with a girlfriend in a homophobic society. The family celebrates an acceptance to Harvard for their son, Nick (Dillon Klena), but he harbors a dark secret that threatens to tear down his privileged life before it even begins.
The angst-driven story is punctuated by bombastic musical interludes like rock concerts. To favorites like “Ironic” or “Hand In My Pocket,” the back wall rises to reveal a live band rockin’ out atop a platform of black scaffolding while dancers burst forth like a party already in progress. The music engenders the spirit of the dancing, with aggressive songs like “You Oughta Know” eliciting jumping and fist-pumping; while a softer, but still upbeat, song like “Head Over Feet” produces a flowing, dream-like style. The most impressive scene featuring movement occurs during “Uninvited,” where Mary Jane, strung out on opiates, hallucinates her day in reverse, with everyone rewinding their movements in fast motion through the previous three scenes.
It is amusing that nearly every character gets to do an Alanis Morissette impersonation—the height of which features three characters, in Morisette’s signature nasal twang and cracking, falsetto yodeling, belting away in three-part harmony. Is it a blatant imitation? Yes. Can I imagine these songs sung differently? No, and it’s kind of fun to hear different people’s takes on Morissette’s signature vocal style.
The story written by Diablo Cody throws in plenty of twists and turns. Frankie cheats on her girlfriend, Jo (Jade McLeod), who catches her in the act with male love interest Phoenix (Rishi Golani), creating a complicated love triangle. Nick is witness to the rape of his friend, Bella (Allison Sheppard), who must deal with the fact that people would believe him had he the courage to speak up, but not her. Mary Jane lapses into opiate-induced psychoses that unravels the family ties, producing incurable consequences. Like the real-life archetypes they portray, the Healy family contains complex, bitter layers beneath a false, squeaky-clean façade.
Using nostalgia like a bludgeon, the cast delivers a knockout performance while telling a story that questions existential dogmas and touches on pressing social issues of inequality. “Jagged Little Pill” exposes the hypocrisies of the “American dream” and reveals the wounds we all carry yet keep hidden, told through the grunge-soaked, passionate anthems of Morissette.
“Jagged Little Pill” at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com. Through April 23.