Review: Jagged Little Pill the Musical– Royal Theatre Sydney (NSW)

Review by Justin Clarke

Lyrics by Alanis Morissette, music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, book by Diablo Cody, directed by Diane Paulus

Those who grew up on Alanis Morrisette will be all too familiar with her angst and rage fuelled music as an artist ready to firmly claim her stake in the music industry. Morissette’s two-time Grammy award winning album Jagged Little Pill, has been faithfully transported onto the stage through collaboration with Glen Ballard, and a Tony-winning book by Diablo Cody. The teen-fuelled angst of the 90’s makes for brilliant drama fodder, and this has been artfully woven into the 21st century by director Diane Paulus, featuring one of the most diverse casts you’ll see on an Australian stage.

We are introduced to Natalie Bassingthwaighte’s Mary Jane Healy, a woman who resembles the modern equivalent of a Stepford wife – hot yoga enthusiast with an unhealthy obsession with the top American universities. Over worked and absent father Steve (Tim Draxl), honour student Nick (Liam Head) and adopted daughter Frankie (Emily Nkomo) are neatly organised in the all-too-pristine Christmas family card that Mary Jane writes each year. The cracks in the foundations of the Healy’s upper class suburban household are deep from the beginning.

Cody’s book crams in as much character plots as possible with mixed results. Nkomo’s Frankie rebels against her mother’s picture-perfect lifestyle through being a social activist, with the help of her non-binary best friend, and pseudo-sexual partner Jo (with a powerhouse performance by Maggie McKenna). Head’s Nick succumbs to the pressures placed upon him by his parents by attending a social gathering with life-altering consequences. Meanwhile Mary Jane herself is addicted to pills after a recent car-accident, awakening past trauma that is set to derail her and her family’s lives.

This reviewer’s opinion is that the show warrants a trigger warning. The subject matter runs deep and lures into you a sense of security before forcing you to wake up. Cody’s book wants us as an audience to take in what we’re watching and doesn’t give us just another jukebox musical. Most of the storylines fly, but within the consistent hit after hit in the subject matter of the story, some remain on the floor.

Literally raising the audience to its feet in the second act, Maggie McKenna’s rendition of ‘You Oughta Know‘ was by the far the most sensational number of the entire production.

Bassingthwaighte reminds audiences why she is one of Australia’s most versatile entertainers. Her rendition of some of Morissette’s biggest hits, Forgiven and Uninvited, are belted with such power they fill the newly refurbished Royal Theatre itself. Although at times her performance may have seemed somewhat chaotic and off balance, Bassingthwaighte delivered the emotional wallop required in the second act.

Smashing out hits such as Ironic and Unprodigal Daughter, newcomer Emily Nkomo held her own through the musical arrangements of the show. Despite being overshadowed in her acting by her fellow performers and slipping into Australian twang during the heavier scenes, it was clear to see Nkomo has a bright future ahead of her.

Literally raising the audience to its feet in the second act, Maggie McKenna’s rendition of You Oughta Know was by the far the most sensational number of the entire production. McKenna embodied their character with such honesty and grit that the honesty in their performance had everyone along for the journey. Very rarely will a performer be able to raise a standing ovation from an audience (especially in Australia) mid show, and this was a sight to behold.

Riccardo Hernandez‘s scenic design created intimate bedroom sequences, to confronting scenes in bedrooms, and even the depth and space of a cathedral through a mix of moveable screens and projections with video design by Lucy Mackinnon. With Justin Townsend’s audacious lighting design, the musical numbers such as You Oughta Know become an electric rock show that seemed personally created for the Theatre Royal’s stage.

Perhaps the show’s downfall is found in the choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, which seemed scattered and uneven. Signalling out key performers to aid the emotional triggers during key scenes were genius, whereas larger ensemble pieces looked like a paint by numbers styling and some more artistically styled ideas awkwardly stood out on a professional stage.

What may make Jagged Little Pill an enduring musical destined to echo into theatres around the world is the heavily layered thematic concerns that seem all too prevalent in today’s society. Drug abuse, suicide attempts, rape culture and gender identity, are brought to light through Cody’s book and the musical theatre composition of Morissette’s lyrics.

Once in a generation there comes along a musical that breaks the mould and smashes through the social zeitgeist with gusto and vigour, standing proud and firm in its morals and themes. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill the Musical is that show.

Reviewer Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This current limited Sydney season of Jagged Little Pill runs to Sunday 19th December.  After its Melbourne season at the Comedy Theatre from January 2nd, the production will move to Perth’s Crown Theatre from May 14th and due to demand will triumphantly return to Theatre Royal Sydney from July 9th 2022.

Creative Team
Director Diane Laulus
Book Diablo Cody
Music Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard
Choreography Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui 
Musical Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements Tom Kitt

Cast
Natalie Bassingthwaighte (she/her)
Tim Draxl (he/him)
Emily Nkomo (she/her)
Liam Head (he/him)
Maggie McKenna (they/them)
Grace Miell (she/they)
AYDAN (he/him)
Ensemble – Baylie Carson (they/them), Bella Choundary (she/her), Josh Gates (they/he), Matt Hamilton (he/him), Georgina Hopson (she/her), Marie Ikonomou (she/her), Caleb Jago-Ward (he/him), Jerome Javier (he/they), Giorgia Kennedy (she/her), Coby Njoroge (he/him), Noah Mullins (he/him), Isabella Roberts (she/her), Trevor Santos (he/him), Mon Vergara (they/them), Romy Vuksan (she/her) and Imani Williams (she/her)

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