“Jagged Big Pill” would be a more apt title.
Never has a more angst-ridden musical opened on Broadway. We’re treated to opioid abuse, white male privilege, lesbian discrimination, insensitive interracial adoption, toxic parental pressure, acute porn addiction and teenage party rape. Most Broadway musicals are a decade or two behind the times when it comes to major social issues, but here’s one that appears to have been inspired by, among other highlights of the #MeToo Movement, last summer’s U.S. Senate hearing over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Surprisingly, the source material for this very up-to-date musical is almost three decades old: Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album, “Jagged Little Pill.” The musical version, with original book by Diablo Cody and direction by Diane Paulus, opened Thursday at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre.
There are actually two assaults in “Jagged Little Pill,” the musical: A supporting character named Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) is raped at a high school party and that event triggers horrific memories of abuse in the show’s lead character, the wife and mother of two Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley, being very empathetic). When “Pill” opens, Mary Jane is recovering from a car accident and finds herself addicted to opioids. In addition to being unhappily married to the workaholic and porn-addicted Steve Healy (Sean Allan Krill), Mary Jane claims she has single-handedly raised her adopted bisexual black daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding, in strong singing voice for her Broadway debut), as well as her biological son, Nick (Derek Klena). Nick is going off to Harvard in the autumn — but not before he witnesses Bella being raped at a drunken party by his good friend, the very wealthy and equally white Andrew (Logan Hart).
Cody makes her Broadway debut with the book for “Pill,” and the “Juno” screenwriter gives Mary Jane enough trauma to trigger a dozen somber musicals, much less one bad flashback. She’s called Mary Jane because otherwise Morissette’s song “Mary Jane” from the album wouldn’t fit into the stage show. No matter that the song is about marijuana and that a woman born to clueless parents in the late 1960s would have shortened it to Mary to avoid all those inevitable jokes about guys wanting to smoke her stash. Jonathan Deans’ sound design for “Pill” is so mushy you won’t be able to understand the lyrics (by Morissette and Glen Ballard) anyway. Do remember, every character in “Pill” has a lot of crap to get off his, her or their chest.
Never are the lyrics more mangled-sounding (or louder) than the musical’s big showstopper “You Oughta Know.” It comes after Frankie’s lesbian girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten), enters the Healeys’ unlocked house unannounced, and since no one answers her call, she feels enough at home to walk into Frankie’s bedroom to find her girlfriend under the sheets with a new boyfriend, Phoenix (the cheerful Antonio Cipriani, seemingly the only actor on stage allowed to smile). Being mortified and more than ready to slut-shame her suddenly ex-girlfriend, Jo squeals to Mr. and Mrs. Healey about Frankie’s brand-new heterosexual affair so that they can rush home, fresh from a disastrous session with a marriage counselor (Nora Schell, turning a cliché into a real person), to catch their daughter doing it with a male person her own age.
Let’s consider for a moment how Paulus handles Phoenix after the Healeys find him and their daughter in bed together. Instead of having Phoenix jump out the upstairs window to run somewhere off stage and out of sight, Paulus directs the half-naked Cipriani to take a circuitous shortcut down the stage and into the audience where, grabbing onto the trousers around his knees, he plows through the first row of the orchestra as amused theatergoers get to guffaw at his totally exposed skivvies (costumes by Emily Rebholz). One can only imagine the reaction if the sexes were reversed and a director had a half-naked young woman run through the audience to provide a moment of cheap comic relief.
Frankie’s betrayal does lead to Jo’s singing “You Oughta Know” after she rudely tattles to her now-ex’s parents. Beyond vengeful, Jo doesn’t slug Frankie or pull out a gun, but she does give a good impression of that outer-space creature shooting out of a guy’s belly in the first “Alien” movie. Talk about overreaction.
In previews, Patten has received standing ovations for this amazingly overwrought rendition of “You Oughta Know.” The performance makes “Defying Gravity” sound like “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.” Because Patten’s screaming, twitching, hopping and other physical contortions aren’t sufficient, Paulus brings in the full chorus and rolls out the band from backstage to accompany her as Justin Townsend’s lighting signals a five-alarm fire and Deans’ amplification goes up another notch to blast out to West 44th Street. Here’s a safe prediction: Patten will win the Tony for best featured actress in a musical. This is a minority report, but I felt sorry not for Jo but Frankie, who had no idea at age 16 that she’d committed to a lifelong relationship with a lesbian who clearly harbors anger-management issues.
And while we’re on the subject, can costume designer stop putting lesbian characters in stocking caps? A moratorium, please.