What a Jagged Little Pill!

Jagged Little Pill Australia 2021 - Liam Head, Emily Nkomo, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Tim Draxl. Image: Daniel Boud

Review: Jagged Little Pill, Theatre Royal, Sydney – Thursday 9 December, 2021.

Reviewed by associate editor/special writer, John Moyle.

★★★★1/2

Jagged Little Pill was the third album from Canadian singer, Alanis Morissette and with its alt rock, post grunge sounds and songs of alienation, troubled relationships and aggression it quickly became a world-wide hit, eventually selling over 33 million copies.

Those songs and others taken from subsequent albums, along with two written specifically for this show, form the linking device for writer Diablo Cody’s approach to a heart rendering and joyous script for the stage production of Jagged Little Pill.

The production follows the travails of the Healy family from middle Connecticut as they navigate their way through a series of crises that envelope the whole family and those around them.

We first see family heads Mary Jane Healy (Natalie Brassingthwaighte) and Steve Healy (Tim Draxl) as the perfect couple with the perfect blended family of adopted African-American daughter Frankie (Emily Nkomo) and son Nick (Liam Head).

Steve has just landed a high paying corporate position; Frankie is finding a voice in school as a writer and artist and Nick has just landed an early admission to Harvard.

Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Mary Jane and Time Draxl as Steve. Image: Daniel Boud

Mary Jane is detailing all of this in her annual Christmas message to be posted on the internet where she expects her depiction of the ideal suburban life to be admired by family and friends.

What we don’t know in these opening scenes is that it is all about to unravel, which it does big time.

“Hand in My Pocket” is the third song in and announces the budding relationship between the young Frankie and Jo (Maggie McKenna), who has problems with her Catholic mother being unable to accept that she is gay.

Meanwhile Nick goes to a school party where a good friend of his, Bella (Grace Miell), is raped while in a drunken state and finds herself being slut shamed by social media postings.

The mostly absent Steve appears to be burying himself in his work when Mary Jane discovers that he is spending a lot of his time downloading porn.

It is not long before we find that Mary Jane has problems of her own when she discloses that 10 months previously, she was in a car accident and is in a lot of pain.

And so, we are set for a bumpy ride, which takes us through various character arcs and plot line developments that stretch all the way to New York City and back.

Holding all of this together is no easy feat, as Cody’s book covers virtually every # meme relevant today, in much the same way that its predecessors Hair and Rent did for their times.

Jagged Little Pill deals with some heavy social issues. Above – Grace Miell as Bella (centre) and ensemble. Image: Daniel Boud

If anything, this is one of the problems that Jagged Little Pill has to overcome as the audience are overwhelmed by the number and depth of issues presented and it keeps having to fight its way back to a centre, without losing the line of the main story.

Like the two aforementioned plays Jagged Little Pill’s narrative arc is helped by a tribe of dancers who facilitate and provide depth and animation for the main characters who are navigating one crisis to another.

The staging is some of the most spectacular and simple that I have seen in ages.

Utilising well designed video projections onto movable screens, the transitions between scenes are seamless and at times jaw dropping in their cinematic scope.

We go from busy train stations to the interior of a cathedral that is at once both intimate and foreboding.

Jagged Little Pill is a sensational musical re-imagining the songs of Alanis Morissette and Glenn Ballard. Video: YouTube/JaggedLittlePilltheMusicalAU

The interiors of various homes and schools are suggested by simple strip lighting, some with added projection, while NYC is filled with both back projections and the brilliant busyness of the tribe providing the often humorous street action.

One small complaint on the night was that the sound, particularly that of the chorus, could have been better EQed, with it often coming across with little separation.

The band, led by Peter Rutherford with the inimitable Rex Goh on guitar, provided just the right amount power for the songs without overwhelming the singers.

The cast is well represented by Bassingthwaighte’s portrayal of the brittle and in-denial character of Mary Jane, while Draxl’s Steve has the right amount of distance and unwillingness for confrontation and self-reflection.

Emily Nkomo’s Frankie is a difficult character to get a grip on in the story, almost as if there is too much going on.

She is an adopted African-American in an all-white cast, bi-sexual and a runaway.

Emily Nkomo as Frankie (seated front) and ensemble. Image: Daniel Boud

However, Nkomo manages all of this with great charisma and gives us some touching moments both with Jo and her own family, while leading the ensemble in a number of songs.

Nick Healy is a borderline jock who has a brilliant future mapped out which he must forego in order to find his conscience to save himself.

Liam Head manages to navigate these issues inside and outside the family with considerable skill while being a minor but important character in the story.

The role of Bella is almost worthy of a play in itself and Grace Miell has a huge character arc for the character, which she pulls off with a couple of outstanding moments.

Former The Voice star, Aydan’s role as Phoenix is to be the heterosexual foil between Frankie and Jo, and while a minor part of the story, he manages this with great charm.

Standing ovation for Maggie McKenna as Jo giving a powerful rendition of “You Oughta Know”. Image: Daniel Boud

The showstopper and worth the price of admission alone belongs to Maggie McKenna as Jo, the queer girl who gets to question Frankie on the values of trust.

McKenna’s delivery of “You Oughta Know” brought the house to a standing ovation not once but three times.

It’s not often that a show delivers a revelation but in McKenna Jagged Little Pill has done just this.

Like its title this show has its jagged edges. but in the end, like the story, all is good.

Jagged Little Pill plays the Theatre Royal, 108 King St, Sydney until Sunday, 19 December, 2021, then returns to Sydney in July 2022. For tickets and further information, jaggedmusical.com

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.