Review: Jagged Little Pill The Musical, Theatre Royal Sydney, July 17
One on level, Jagged Little Pill: The Musical could be considered part of the 1990s nostalgia-fest that currently has tie-front cardigans and bucket hats in the stores, and another musical based on one of the decade’s cultural institutions – the movie Cruel Intentions – playing at the State Theatre around the corner.
Yet this weaving of Alanis Morrisette’s multi-platinum 1995 album into the story of a modern, dysfunctional American family manages to feel very much of this moment – even if ‘that moment’ was originally meant to be around last Christmas, before pandemic restrictions kept the Broadway musical’s Sydney premiere season to just two and a half weeks.
Admittedly, Jagged Little Pill: The Musical is not above shouting about its relevance: the placards held aloft by the dancers during the opening overture of this ‘re-opening night’ read a bit like a checklist of Serious Social Issues of the #metoo and Black Lives Matter eras.
Yet it’s a tribute to the skill of Diablo Cody, who also scripted the beguiling Juno, that this piece retains the grungy activism of its musical source material and never feels preachy or cheesy – no mean feat when Australian actors are required to adopt American accents.
The Healys, the fictional family on whom the musical centres, are seemingly perfect suburbanites with the full set of 2020s problems – addictions to opioids and online porn, the pressure to live up to Instagram perfection, and the fissures created when people rightly demand recognition and restitution for differences and injustices once swept under the carpet.
Yet Morrissette’s quarter-century-old songs give vital voice to the frustrations and passions these characters feel, even when their arrangements are occasionally toned down for the sake of lyrical intelligibility.
However there was no holding back for the highlight of both this and the original opening night – Maggie McKenna’s big-voiced, big-hearted blast through You Oughta Know. Ostensibly it was the outcry of a spurned lover, but in reality, coming as it does halfway through the second half, it’s a purging of the collective rage and confusion we’ve hitherto seen on stage.
The standing ovation for McKenna felt especially cathartic, but the cast earned several, with Natalie Bassingthwaite as matriarch Mary Jane Healy in particular inhabiting her journey from uptightness to honesty. The fact that the 46-year-old is of the generation of young women that bought Morrissette’s album in droves could only have helped.
There are plenty of laughs too – good on Alanis for letting the producers get away with a scene where Ironic is sung as part of a school English class, while pedantic students point out that nothing depicted in its lyrics is technically ironic.
Intelligent and uplifting, Jagged Little Pill: The Musical is a celebration of a 1990s icon with a lot more going for it than double denim or the centre part.
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