Now playing at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until March 16 Playing at the Crown Theatre, Perth from May 14-June 5 and returning to Sydney’s Theatre Royal in July 2022
Jukebox musicals are often a risky proposition. Crafting a narrative out of a collection of songs from a specific era or artist is a difficult thing, and for every Mamma Mia! or Rock of Ages, there are countless other musicals which have adopted this technique but haven’t quite pulled it off.
Thankfully though, Jagged Little Pill, using Alanis Morrisette’s landmark 1995 album as its basis, is one of the best examples of how to do this type of show correctly. With a book by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), and featuring hits such as You Oughta Know, Ironic and Hand in My Pocket, this story of a fractured family is a moving and heartfelt one, and the characters are all well-realised and three dimensional.
The integration of Morrisette’s music, with all of the songs co-written by Glen Ballard, into the narrative is expertly done, and never feels forced or contrived. In addition to utilising the thirteen tracks from Jagged Little Pill, there are also ten other tracks by Morrisette featured here, including a pair of songs (Smiling and Predator) written specifically for the show.
The surprising thing about Jagged Little Pill is that it is a family drama at its core, and not set in the world of rock music which might have been the obvious choice for bringing the album to the stage. Focusing on the loving but troubled Healy family, they’re the focus and heart of the story, with mum Mary Jane (played by Natalie Bassingthwaighte) trying to maintain a brave face in the midst of a hidden opioid addiction, while keeping her loving husband Steve (Tim Draxl) at a distance, and doting on her two children – adopted daughter Frankie (Emily Nkomo) and college-bound son Nick (Liam Head). But everyone in the Healy family has difficult issues they must confront – from the bisexual Frankie’s growing attraction to classmate Phoenix (Aydan), which causes a rift with her girlfriend Jo (Maggie McKenna), to a shocking incident involving student Nick’s friend Bella (Grace Miell), in which Nick finds himself unwittingly caught up in and forced to confront his own morals.
Thanks to having an Oscar-winning in writer Cody crafting the story – the characters and narrative are much stronger than you might expect from a musical of this kind, and there are many moments which are emotionally devastating. And like most of Cody’s previous works, the balance of heavy drama balancing with levelling humour is expertly done.
There are several show-stopping numbers, but I don’t think I’ve even seen a more incredible reception to a song than during McKenna’s rendition of You Oughta Know. It’s certainly not the norm to have four or five ovations for a performer during a musical number, but McKenna’s fiery and powerful vocals just make this one of the best moments I’ve seen on stage, ever. And McKenna was given a well-deserved standing ovation after this song, and I’m sure this wasn’t the first or last time this has happened.
In addition to You Oughta Know being the highlight of the show, the integration of this iconic song into the narrative is expertly done, which heightens the emotional impact as well. Without hyperbole, the show is worth seeing for this number alone.
But that’s not to take anything away from the rest of the cast. Bassingthwaighte is not only a great singer, but able to convey the distress and emotional difficulty of her character’s addiction, and also has some great comedic moments too. Draxl is superb too as a well-meaning family man, while Nkomo and Head are two spectacular young performers who are incredibly accomplished for performers of their age. The youthful ensemble is terrific too, and while the sets and staging is mostly sparse, there’s some innovative use of large video screens and flashy lighting throughout to keep things visually arresting.
The choreography is superb too, none better exemplified than during Bassingthwaighte’s hauntingly beautiful performance of Uninvited, not from Jagged Little Pill but instead featured on the soundtrack to the 1998 film City of Angels, and an incredibly underrated Morrisette track in my opinion.
The staging of this sequence is astounding as it depicts Mary Jane in the midst of an opioid overdose, while another cast member mirrors her movements as it depicts the agony Mary Jane is going through, is truly devastating and it was the perfect choice to use Uninvited in that moment.
The impression anyone will be left with after watching this is a renewed appreciation for what exceptional songwriters both Morrisette and Ballard are, and why the album is still regarded as one of the all-time greats 26 years after release.
Incorporating timely themes without ever seeming preachy or heavy-handed and hitting unexpectedly hard on an emotional level (the final scene will bring even the coldest audience member to tears) – Jagged Little Pill is both a lavish, flashy rock musical and a moving family drama all rolled into one. Powerful both in its storytelling and with its skilful use of Morrisette’s music, Jagged Little Pill is a knockout from start to finish.
Tickets and more info can be found at https://www.jaggedmusical.com/
Photos by Daniel Boud/Supplied