Diablo Cody Wraps Morissette Songs Around Family Dysfunction
by Patricia L. Morin
Alanis Morissette’s world famous 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill,” coupled with Diablo Cody’s book, unfolds teenage existential uneasiness in a sharp, surreal, sensational evening.
Neon lights form a rooftop frame for colorful ever-changing video scenes. Walls split open to reveal a bakery, train, church, and bedroom that roll onstage. The eight-piece band, orchestrated by Tom Kitt, sits above the stage, playing renditions from the original album.
Like the teens it portrays, the music varies from brash to melancholy.
The underlying plot is simplistic, but profits from very fine acting, rare in musicals. We have the quintessential, dysfunctional, soap opera family, a step down from Morissette’s complex musical montage. The mother, Christmas letter writer, and car-accident survivor is prescription drug-addicted Mary Jane (magnetic Heidi Blickenstaff), a powerhouse of both acting and singing.
When Mary Jane can’t get her opiate fix legally, she buys drugs in alleyways. She denies sex to her husband Steve (ardent Chris Hock), who quickly turns workaholic and porn-addicted. His calming voice is often overpowered by his wife’s.
Their bi-sexual, adopted Black daughter Frankie (impassioned Lauren Chanel) frequently demonstrates for social justice, joining rallies with big signs: “Does My Period Scare You?” and “Fear Has No Place in our Schools!” As the most angst driven of the teens, Chanel plays Frankie with the right mix of anxiety, anger, and confusion.
Frankie loves her girlfriend, Jo (dynamic Jade McLeod), her lover and best friend. But she is falling for Phoenix (sweet Rishi Golani)–a guy. So begins a “no win” conflict for the triad.
Frankie’s tortured, lesbian ex-lover responds to the rejection with the emotional anthem “You Oughta Know.” Jade McLeod’s rich, heart-aching voice demands and receives our full attention:
And I’m here, to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It’s not fair, to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me
You, you, you oughta know
The updated lyrics are the star of show, with music by Morissette and Glenn Ballard. The touching lyrics, sometime muffled by the volume, convey a universal depth and meaning for all ages. Frankie and her new crush Phoenix sing “Ironic,” lamenting our life’s twist and turns:
A traffic jam when you’re already late
A “No Smoking” sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
A little too ironic, and yeah, I really do think
With masterful coordination, Director Diane Paulus blends 23 personalities into a synergy of sound and movement.
The voices soar, taking over the massive theater. I love the gifted dancers who blend as a chorus, but also dance in intriguing, individual styles. Some dancers shiver and shake like blurred contortionists, while others move gracefully, like willowy Courtney (adroit Jena VanEslander) who melts over a couch. Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui blends them all into a spectacular stage event.
While the music fluctuates from hard rock to softer ballads, Morissette’s lyrics deliver the moody pain of contemporary youth. When Frankie sings “Unprodigal Daughter,” she reminds us of the 70s mass exodus to California in search of freedom. We feel Frankie’s conflicts with her deeply troubled family:
Unprodigal Daughter heading out onto into my quest
Disenchanted daughter and this train cannot move fast enough
Unencumbered daughter hit the ground running at last!
I’d invite you but I’m busy being unoppressed
The family dysfunction bleeds into the lives of Frankie’s confused Harvard-bound brother Nick (hesitant heartthrob Dillon Klena) and lovely Bella (versatile Allison Sheppard), who wants to date him. The second act exposes a party scene with serious consequences.
The last song “You Learn,” sung by the company, wraps up the theme of Moressette’s album and the show: “You live you learn / You love you learn / You cry you learn / You lose you learn.”
Come see, listen, and enjoy a stirring musical straight from today’s youthful hearts.
“Jagged Little Pill” –lyrics by Alanis Morissette, music by Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard, book by Diablo Cody, directed by Diane Paulus, at BroadwaySF, Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco. Info: BroadwaySF – to November 6, 2022.
Cast: Heidi Blickenstaff, Lauren Chanel, Chris Hoch, Dillon Klena, Jade McLeod, and Allison Sheppard.
The Chorus: Lee H. Alexander, Delaney Brown, Jada Simone Clark, Lani Corson, Jason Goldston, Rishi Golani, Zach Hess, Cydney Kutcipal, Jordan Leigh McCaskill, Alana Pollard, Daniel Thimm, Kei Tsuruharatani, and Jena VanElsander.
Banner photo: Lauren Chanel (Frankie) & the Company. Photos: Matthew Murphy for Murphy Made