One of Jagged Little Pill’s many memorable moments comes before the curtain has even lifted on the musical – a show written by Diablo Cody that takes Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album of the same name and uses it as the engine for an original work. On page 4 of the program, Alanis describes her memories of the beginnings of the creative process: “…I began to really think about this record… in the studio when I was nineteen years old…”
The songs she wrote on that album – reflections on heartache, hope, as well as the occasional roar of righteous anger – were rendered so well with the help of musician Glen Ballard that it can be easy to miss that Alanis was so young at the time.
With the quality of material at its source and of the creatives first bringing it to a live stage, it’s no wonder the production that finally landed at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne was as brilliant as it was.
The musical tells the story of the Healy family, centred on the mother, Mary Jane. The family has a perfect life to hear MJ tell it: her husband Steve is successful while their children Frankie and Nick are excelling in school.
But even with MJ’s perfectionism, we start to glimpse Steve’s loneliness, Frankie’s struggles, and the pressure of expectation slowly pressing down on Nick until one awful night tests all them and their capacity for love and forgiveness and change.
The show opens with an almost nostalgic burst of three of the album’s more recognisable tracks – Right Through You, All I Really Want, and Hand in My Pocket – and proves the lyrics that were originally from a single voice are rich and malleable enough to be put into the mouths of different characters without it ever seeming too inauthentic.
Head Over Feet, is probably the weakest example of this, but only because it’s use here to both celebrate one new relationship while simultaneously lamenting another’s ruin was a contortion too far, something reflected in the number’s complicated movement.
There’s a contrast between the geometry of the set design and action on it. There’s a single beam running across the top of the set that bends slightly in the middle to resemble the frame of any domestic house. Below, the bulk of the setting is made via two large panels sliding along the rear of the stage as other items come forward and back on perpendicular lines.
Pouring out onto the stage and colouring all over those lines are the Ensemble, dressed mostly like an early Eddie Vedder cheer squad – a mid-90s grunge-inspired collection of plaid, dark colours, and dark denim.
The Ensemble are used well to serve the needs of each scene and keep things going, such as smaller speaking roles, stylistic sequences, or the hilarious setting of Ironic in a high school English classroom.
In lesser hands Mary Jane might feel more karaoke than character, but Natalie Bassingthwaighte does terrific work as MJ with a wonderful performance that held every moment it had to, whether vocally in an explosive moment of catharsis or just the smallest physical gesture, showing the burden on MJ of weathering such emotional havoc over so many years.
Helping MJ recover from that burden is her husband, Steve. While depicted at first as a series of Steve The Business Man Looks Sad tableaux, the character is certainly not cartoonish and Tim Draxl gave a great performance of a father desperate to save his family. Despite Alanis’ lyrics requiring more fiddling than others to fit Steve’s mouth, Tim made every one strong and organic.
The small troubles affecting Frankie and Nick are little in comparison to the trauma they’re soon caught up in, and while at times the characters doubt their own resilience, performers Emily Nkomo and Liam Head were both compelling in their respective roles.
The show’s remaining heart was made from Grace Miell’s spare yet devastating performance as Bella, and Maggie McKenna’s performance as Jo. I honestly cannot remember when another production would have received a mid-show standing ovation, but even if there were none could have matched the explosive reaction Maggie received at the end of You Oughta Know.
With no other tools than their body and an extraordinary voice, Maggie took an already blistering polemic and set it ablaze. Maggie’s breath to deliver the final line of the song had not yet left their body before thousands of audience were on their feet in appreciation, as we all were again a few songs later and the curtain.
Jagged Little Pill takes an album so of its moment and refashions it into something original for today that isn’t afraid to engage confront. Our final sight of the cast was a row of expressions of relief and gratitude, the latter given back to them in prodigious amounts by crowd hopefully that more of Melbourne’s performing heart is returning and not before too long.
Jagged Little Pill
Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 16 January 2022
Season continues to 16 March 2022
Following its Melbourne season, Jagged Little Pill will play Perth’s Crown Theatre from 14 May and a return season at Theatre Royal Sydney from 9 July 2022. For more information, visit: www.jaggedmusical.com for details.
Images: Jagged Little Pill Australian Cast | Liam Head, Emily Nkomo, Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Tim Draxl | Maggie McKenna and cast – all photos by Daniel Boud
Review: David Collins