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Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Edgy ‘Jagged Little Pill’ Electrifies the Hippodrome

We may all have ideas as to what defines a perfect family. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. What would be the criteria? But we can probably agree that the Healy family depicted in Jagged Little Pill currently playing at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour is far from a perfect family.

In an expertly staged and performed production under the direction of Diane Paulus, Jagged Little Pill peels back layers of vulnerabilities and flaws we all possess as humans and maps out the journey to correct and heal from the messy mistakes we all make.  

The edgy jukebox musical with music by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, lyrics by Morissette, and book by Diablo Cody, with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth, is not biographical, as in the case of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which were recent touring offerings at the Hippodrome. Instead, it contains a fictional storyline enhanced by Morissette’s confessional and emotive lyrics and was adapted to the stage from Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, one of the top 20 best selling albums of all time.

Much of Morrissett’s well-known songs are included in the production. “Hand in My Pocket,” “Ironic,” “Head Over Feet,” “Uninvited,” “Thank You,” ‘You Learn” and the lead single “You Oughta Know” are among those performed.

Admittedly, I was never a fan of alternative rock music so I wasn’t dialed into Morissette’s body of work that brought her seven Grammy Awards. Unlike other jukebox musicals where I was familiar with and loved the music, I was stepping into the unknown.  As a result, I was quite pleased with the songs with several being emotionally charged and overflowing with passion. They were adroitly slotted in the story, leading to a moving theatrical experience.

With the extraordinary set designed by Riccardo Hernández, the brilliant Lighting Design by Justin Townsend, the grunge-like costumes by Emily Rebholz, Tom Kitt’s potent orchestration, and the stellar performances by the overwhelmingly young and energetic cast, you get a HAIR meets RENT vibe with the atmospherics and the types of issues explored.

Jagged Little Pill, which was nominated for a record fifteen Tony Awards in 2020 and winning two including Best Book of a Musical, aims a spotlight on such sensitive matters as drug addiction, rape, racism, sexuality, privilege and teenage angst.  The Healy family and the other characters in the cast provide the vehicle to navigate the pain these issues bring upon them.

Set in a Connecticut suburb, Mary Jane “MJ” Healy (played exceptionally by Heidi Blickenstaff in reprising her original Broadway role) is the central character. As the mother of two teenagers, and a controlling one at that, MJ attempts to be the force to keep the family on track so as to not sully the family’s (meaning her) reputation. She is recovering from an auto accident and is on prescription drugs to cope with the pain. When the prescriptions run out, she resorts to alternative means of acquiring the opiates to satisfy her addiction. MJ had also suffered another traumatic experience that is revealed later in the show.

Jade McLeod as Jo (l.) and Lauren Chanel as Frankie

This addiction is unknown to her husband Steve (played by Chris Hoch). An attorney who spends way too much time at work to provide for the family, Steve has noticed the widening gulf between him and MJ and is at a loss to understand why the intimacy has all but vanished. He turns to porn as a means to satisfy his needs, and they both seek help from a marriage counselor.

Adopted daughter Frankie (played by Lauren Chanel) has her own set of problems. She is a Black teenager in a mainly white world at home, at school and in her neighborhood. Frankie is trying to find her voice, identity and sexuality.

She’s had an interest in her long-time friend and gender non-conforming Jo (played by Jade McLeod) but also found an attraction to a boy Phoenix (Rishi Golani) and had a sexual encounter with him. Jo literally walks into the bedroom where this occurred and told Frankie’s parents.

Virtually throughout the show Frankie is clad in tight, short shorts mainly because her parents disapprove of her attire and this is probably a manifestation of rebellion.

For his part, son and older brother Nick (Dillon Klena) is burdened by the pressure of being the only member of the clan who has a chance of normalcy so more is expected of him. Being accepted in Harvard is great but he, too, has a difficult challenge. He witnessed a rape of a student named Bella (Allison Sheppard) by his friend Andrew (Jason Goldston) but never intervened.

Through powerful dialogue and song, the problems of this modern-day family are worked through. Although the subject matter is often dark and intense, there are enough comical moments tossed in to balance the emotions. Simply put, Jagged Little Pill is a dark comedy.

Aesthetically, the production is superb. Everything on the stage seems to be in perpetual motion. It is difficult to recall a show with so much movement of scenery, set pieces and projections—all executed flawlessly and smoothly—adding a high-tempo pace to the show. Throw in the stunning lighting and you have an eye-pleasing spectacle.

The basic set includes a geometric, angular frame resembling an outline of a house with set pieces moving in from upstage and across. Moveable large panels are used that are on an angle giving the entire set a “jagged” look, which is undoubtedly the intention. The orchestra is seated on top of a scaffold upstage.

As Mary Jane, Heidi Blickenstaff excels on all fronts. Her acting is skilled as she convincingly plays the distraught, desperate wife and mother trying to overcome her own weaknesses.  Her later overdose gives her an additional opportunity for Ms. Blickenstaff to burnish her acting skills.  The actress demonstrates her spectacular vocals in such numbers as “Smiling” and ‘Uninvited” as well as several group numbers.

Chris Hoch does a fine job as Steve. His ability to touchingly convey the frustration from a relationship slipping away is spot-on. He sings well in a few group numbers including “All I Really Want,” “So Unsexy,” and “Mary Jane” displaying a strong baritone voice.

Playing the part of Frankie is Lauren Chanel. She effectively conveys the anger and rebellious nature of this 16-year-old dealing with being an African American with her environment almost entirely consisting of white people.

Frankie is also bisexual. When she came out to her parents, they were stunned by the revelation. An argument ensued about her having sex with a boy and she ran away to New York, albeit temporarily. 

Frankie’s relationship with Jo is complicated by Jo’s desire to intimately be with her and the resulting jealousy of Phoenix that threatens their friendship.

Ms. Chanel’s vocals shine in “Ironic,” a duet with Rishi Golani as Phoenix and in “Unprodigal  Daughter.”

Handsome Dillon Klina plays Frankie’s older brother Nick. His acting is proficient especially when Nick confronts MJ regarding the rape he witnessed. She does not want him to report it because it would follow him forever and ruin his reputation. He deftly snaps back and told her it was her reputation she was trying to protect.

MJ tells Nick that he is the only thing she did right, and he reflects on that pressure with his solo “Perfect.”   

"Aesthetically, the production is superb."

One of the bright lights of this production is Jade McLeod, who superbly plays the gender non-conforming Jo.  Raised by a religious mother who tells them that they does not wear sufficiently feminine clothing and life is too hard as it is, Jo is confident and secure in their identity. They truly want an intimate relationship with Frankie but the latter’s bisexuality provides a barrier.

Jade McLeod’s vocals soar in “Hand in My Pocket,” a solo “Your House,” and the production’s show stopping number and best seller from the album “You Oughta Know.” The audience exploded with cheers at the conclusion of that song, which expresses Jo’s anger and passion.

As Bella, a withdrawn and hurt student, Allison Sheppard does a splendid job as the rape victim. She movingly expresses the frustration of not being believed and when MJ discloses that she had also been raped, she found no solace as MJ could not state when the pain would end. This was one of the most emotional scenes in the show.

Ms. Sheppard commands a mighty voice and  excels in “Predator” and “No.”

The remainder of the cast is excellent, notably Rishi Golan as Frankie’s boyfriend Phoenix and Jason Goldston as Andrew, a privileged student who committed the rape.

The youthful Ensemble is outstanding with their high-energy dancing that is choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaqui and wonderful vocals in performing in most of the numbers.

The song “Thank U” is yet another show stopper in which the cast and Ensemble perform.

In short, Little Jagged Pill is theatre at its best. It contains all the elements that make a musical so entertaining. Powerful messages on serious issues conveyed by Alanis Morissette’s stirring music and lyrics and performed by a talented cast give it an edgy feel and puts this show in the “don’t miss” category.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Jagged Little Pill runs through December 18 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

Photos: MurphyMade

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