Jagged Little Pill is without a doubt one of my favourite albums of all time and began my love affair with Canadian singer Alanis Morissette. Released back in 1996, this confessional album was introspective and authentic, with raw emotion against the backdrop of soulful rock tunes. It captures the essence of being a woman struggling in life yet brooding with positivity and a sense of empowerment through the tough times.
Now more than 20 years later, the album finds a new life in Jagged Little Pill, the musical book written by Diablo Cody (Juno is also one of my favourites) and here directed by Leah Howard. Part of the reopening of the Theatre Royal – where this writer once worked as an usher – the songs here are the music of the Healy family, with each song relating to the challenges they face at a challenging time.
Matriarch Mary Jane (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) is the “perfect” mother with an opioid addiction who is keeping her family in check. Her husband Steve (Tim Draxl) is a workaholic with an addiction to pornography. Their son Nick (Liam Head) is the prized child who is struggling with his own masculinity in a changing social environment and adopted daughter Frankie (Emily Nkomo), poised to become the next local activist.
There is so much to unpack in the story and so many powerful moments and dialogues held within. Whether its Frankie’s position as an African American and queer adopted daughter wanting her mother to engage with these issues or non-binary character Jo (Maggie McKenna) navigating the challenges of connecting with their family and their community, the musical is one few of late to feel actually modern and relevant to the age in which we live.
Upon a major plot point, a gulf separates the family, and they are each forced to face their own inner demons and change their own opinions and views. By putting them outside their comfort zone, the songs bring refuge from reality and give insight into their internal feelings. It’s a heavy topic and one of many that Jagged Little Pill attempts to explore, but its core is trauma and the power of owning one’s story and making the right decisions even if they might not always be the easiest.
The choreography feels stilted at times and can disrupt the more intimate or special moments, sometimes pushing us too much to “feel” instead of giving creedence to the power of the song and its own lyrics. This can feel overwhelming and pushy, forcing audiences to feel one way rather than guiding them to form their own sense of view.
Regardless, it’s one of the best musicals of 2021. A transcendent moment lies in Jo’s moving and powerful rendition of the classic You Oughta Know. Starting slow and with anguish,the song builds, becoming stronger and hits each audience member with brute force and power. It is the redeeming part of the musical for Jo who has long appeared in the background in this show, McKenna kicks it out of the park with an incredible and unforgettable singing moment of the show. The mid-show standing ovation was worth every clap for them.
That being said, all on stage are incredible. Bassingthwaighte’s performance is bold and vulnerable, her singing and dancing equally as captivating. Draxl also does well with his limited material, his internal conflict feeling tangible on stage. Nkomo is charismatic and stunning, her own peak expression a powerful journey from beginning to end. As a whole, the cast bring the story to life and with strong direction, connect easily with the audience.
Jagged Little Pill does have its faults yet it’s commitment to being a powerhouse musical with a strong social message and with a cast that is unmatchable. While its message may be smacking over our heads, the music and story makes each impact feel more enjoyable. This is an unmissable moment in Australian theatre.