Although Alanis Morissette wrote these songs for her break-out album more than 25 years ago, they have now been brilliantly repurposed by Diablo Cody for a musical which feels very much like it could have been written this week, so intelligently does it address issues with which the current generation is wrestling; mental health, sexual assault, consent, drug addiction, sexual identity and much more. No it’s not The Sound of Music, but it is about family, and the issues it addresses resonate strongly with contemporary audiences.
Jagged Little Pill opens with Mary Jane Healy, (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) the wife and mother of the outwardly perfect Healy family, writing her annual Christmas letter. What she doesn’t put in her letter is that she’s struggling with a drug habit which is rapidly getting out of control. Her successful husband, Steve (Tim Draxl) who’s just received a raise at work, is hooked on pornography.
Her 16 year-old coloured adopted daughter, Frankie, is enthusiastically exploring her sexuality with her best friend, Jo, (Maggie McKenna), and the apple-of-her-eye son, Nick, (Liam Head) is about to become embroiled in a scandal caused not by anything he did, but by what he didn’t do.
This production of Jagged Little Pill is the first international production since it opened on Broadway where it garnered no fewer than 15 Tony Award nominations earlier this year. It’s also the second musical directed by Diane Paulus to be seen in Sydney in recent times. The other was Pippin which opened in Sydney in December 2020.
Prevented by Covid restrictions from travelling to Australia herself, Paulus entrusted the reproduction of her brilliant direction to Australian director, Leah Howard, and that trust has been richly rewarded with an impeccably cast, tightly rehearsed production which drew standing ovations from the first night audience.
Morissette’s songs with their repetitious lyrics and idiosyncratic vocalisations are more pop orientated than musical theatre. But in the hands of masterful vocalists of the calibre of Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Tim Draxl, both fine actors, they are deeply affecting, raw and uncompromising.
In arguably her finest performance to date, Bassingthwaighte is completely believable as the perfect parent, admired by her friends for her ability to cope with any situation. Her gradual disintegration as she begins to lose control of her drug dependency is disturbing to watch.
Tim Draxl as the husband, who chooses to take refuge in pornography rather than face up to the failure of his marriage, matches the complexity of her fine performance with a finely nuanced performance of his own, particularly during a hilarious scene in the marriage councillor’s office as their secrets are exposed.
Talented newcomers, Emily Nkomo, as the Healey’s adopted daughter Frankie, and Liam Head as their college jock son, Nick, give assured, affecting performances, as do Grace Miell as the rape victim, Bella, and Aydan as Jo’s competitor for Frankie’s affections.
However, it’s Maggie McKenna as Jo, who practically steals the show, winning a rare mid-performance standing ovation for her unnervingly ferocious rendition of the anthem You Oughta Know.
Complex, constantly moving scenery, dazzling lighting design, and an energetic ensemble who act as Greek chorus, alter egos to the principals, give their all to the aggressive video-clip choreography, and sing up a storm, ensure that the show moves along at a cracking pace.
But as good as the singing is from the principal players and the ensemble, Tom Kitt’s clever musical arrangements, enthusiastically performed by Peter Rutherford’s superb band, tended to make it difficult to fully appreciate the complexity of Morissette’s lyrics.
However if you’re among those in the audience who obviously appeared to know every lyric of every one of Morissette’s songs by heart, this will not deter you from seeing this brilliant production, which despite it’s challenging, often confronting content, manages to end, if not happily, certainly on an optimistic note.
A stunning choice to launch the superbly renovated Theatre Royal, Jagged Little Pill will enjoy only a very limited season in Sydney, before moving on to seasons in Melbourne and Perth, but don’t despair; it’s already been announced for a return season in Sydney from 9 July 2022.
Jagged Little Pill
Theatre Royal Sydney, 25 King Street, Sydney
Performance: Thursday 9 December 2021
Season continues to 19 December 2021
Following its Sydney season, Jagged Little Pill will play Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre from 2 January, 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.
Image: Emily Nkomo and Natalie Bassingthwaighte star in Jagged Little Pill – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Bill Stephens OAM