By Kimberly Rau
“Jagged Little Pill,” the musical featuring hits from 90s alternative singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette is at the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday. Elder millennials, congratulations, you are now old enough to be the target audience of a jukebox musical (don’t try and claim Dirty Dancing, the Gen Xers should have something of their own).
Having been the exact perfect age for all the angst that Morissette’s first worldwide album offered back in 1995, this reviewer was looking forward to what the musical by the same name had to offer.
Without further ado, meet the Healys. They’re the perfect Connecticut family. Father Steve is addicted to work and pornography. Mother M.J. is hooked on prescription pills after a car accident leaves her with lingering back pain and an opioid addition. Son Nick is the emotionally stunted, closed-off golden child with a Harvard acceptance, and Daughter Frankie is an activist struggling with her status as an adopted child and the only Black member of the family. Then there’s Frankie’s best-friend-turned-romantic-partner Jo, who’s struggling with their family’s acceptance of their newfound gender identity. And there’s a rape at a party that must be addressed, and a cheating scandal, and generational trauma, and a medical emergency, and multiple protests.
In other words, this is one of the most plot-driven jukebox musicals ever, and with so many subplots and issues to address, it’s hard to get too invested in any one story. Just as you’re immersed, the camera lens switches to another character and another conflict. The idea has merit: everyone is so caught up in their own stuff, it’s hard to see what’s going on around you. But this tries to hit so many marks it runs the risk of missing them all.
However, what saves this show is the music, which translates surprisingly well to ensemble work, and some killer choreography. Though set closer to modern day than the mid-90s, the costumes are exactly what you’d want to see when listening to 90s alt-rock.
And then there’s the cast. The cast is perfection. The ensemble exists as both a type of Greek chorus and a visual delight, executing complicated dance numbers that are just as integral to the feel of the music as the singing. Lauren Chanel as Frankie is a talented actor and singer. Her vocal strengths particularly shine during “All I Really Want” and “Unprodigal Daughter.” The men in the show do not get as many power numbers as the women, but Chris Hoch as Steve, Dillon Klena as Nick and Rishi Golani as Phoenix, Frankie’s love interest, are all fantastic actors and vocalists.
Jade may not be part of the Healy family (and therefore not afforded quite as much stage time), but Jade McLeod, who plays the role, gets two of the best numbers in the show. Their voice is strong and emotive, paying homage to Morissette’s style without veering into imitation, and sounds incredible during Act 1’s “Hand in My Pocket.” That’s nothing compared to the hold they get on the audience in Act 2, during “You Oughta Know.” A broken-hearted kick in the gut, this is one of Morissette’s most famous songs, and McLeod’s performance, especially in the context of their character arc, is one of the best things to come across PPAC’s stage in a long time. On top of this, McLeod has a dry wit and great comedic timing, making their performance a privilege to experience.
As much as you think you should be focusing on the younger stories, in many ways this is M.J.’s show, and this tour is lucky enough to have Heidi Blickenstaff at the helm. Blickenstaff previously played the role on Broadway, and watching her is a master class in musical theater performance. Whether her character is posing as the mother of the year for her spin class, lecturing her daughter about outfits, or trying to come to grips with her own demons, Blickenstaff hits the right notes every time. When she opens her mouth to sing, the power behind her voice is stunning. This is someone who knows exactly what she’s doing and it’s a beautiful thing.
Speaking of beautiful things, the lighting is expertly designed, particularly at the end of “You Oughta Know,” when the entire orchestra section is literally bathed in red light as Jo’s rage hits a boiling point. The set is minimalist but highly technical, leading to multiple issues at Tuesday’s performance that ultimately canceled the show. Fortunately, none of those problems were present at the makeup performance I was able to see.
Is this show for everyone? Probably not, and it’s definitely not for young children or people that may be negatively affected by the more upsetting plot points of addiction and sexual assault (visit PPAC’s website, linked below, for more information). But if you appreciate excellent choreography, Morissette’s music catalog and jaw-dropping vocal performances, this show will likely touch your heart, give you a good dose of nostalgia and leave you with something to think about.
“Jagged Little Pill” runs through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at ppacri.org or by calling 401.421.2787. Masks are optional. Please visit PPAC’s website for content advisories.