“Ooh, this could get messy,” sings the ensemble of Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill at the top of Act 2. It’s actually a bit from “Hands Clean” — not a song from the eponymous 1995 Alanis Morissette album that inspired the entire musical, but rather from Under Rug Swept, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s 2002 release.
Jagged Little Pill is, indeed, messy: chaotic, complex, overstuffed, way ambitious, and savagely emotional. But any Gen Xer who fell in love with Morissette’s album 25 years ago and played it on repeat in her dorm room in Michigan remembers loving it for just that reason. “And I’m here, to remind you/ Of the mess you left when you went away,” goes one lyric from the brilliantly vicious breakup song “You Oughta Know” (sung, or rather shredded, on Broadway by Lauren Patten — more on her star-making performance later). Who’s afraid of a little mess?
Certainly not Diablo Cody, the whip-smart Oscar-winning screenwriter (Juno) tasked with taking Morissette’s anthems and patching them into a workable plot (direction is by Diane Paulus, of Waitress and Pippin fame). She starts with a character named Mary Jane “M.J.” Healy (Elizabeth Stanley) — inspired, of course, by Morissette’s “Mary Jane” — a Connecticut supermom who uses oxycodone to survive the day-to-day indignities of suburban upper-middle-class life. (“I’ve gotten to a point where I can’t feel anything!” she chirps proudly.) M.J.’s husband, Steve (Sean Allan Krill), is a workaholic with a hardcore porn habit. Their 18-year-old son, Nick (Derek Klena), is a Harvard-bound square-jawed picture of Americana perfection (cue Morissette’s “Perfect”: “Don’t forget to win first place/ Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face”). And their 16-year-old adopted black daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding), is a bisexual activist with a penchant for protests and barely-there jean shorts (Emily Rebholz designed the awesomely grunge-chic costumes); naturally, she clashes with her athleisure-clad mom at every turn.
Jagged‘s script is clever but not snide, quirky but not unrelatable. When Frankie calls her mom “the literal worst,” her girlfriend Jo (Patten) comes back with this zinger-slash-compliment: “No way, your mom is iconic! She’s one salad away from a psychotic break. I live for it.” And Jo has her own parental issues. “Dear Jesus,” prays Jo, imitating her Bible-beating mom, “please don’t let my only child be a gay. Especially not one of those obvious gays who wears performance fleece and utility sandals. In the name of Fox News, Amen.”
Cody also smartly sets the iconic “Ironic” in a writers’ workshop, where a bunch of wise-ass kids jump all over the song’s lyrics. (Morissette is a very good sport.) “An old man turned 98/ He won the lottery and died the next day/ It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay/ It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late/ And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think…” sings Frankie. Interrupts one obnoxious student: “Hold up, wait a second, that’s actually not ironic?” Adds a pretentious one: “Right? If we’re using irony as defined in Greek tragedy, I don’t see how, like, a fly in your beverage applies…” Another piles on: “That’s not irony, that’s just, like, s—ty.”
Because this is 2019 — and not fantasyland — Cody complicates things further with a sexual assault at a drunken high school party. The girl, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher, heartbreaking) was blackout drunk; the boy, Andrew (Logan Hart), is rich. No one, including Nick, did anything to intervene. It is, however, nastily debated on social media. We see the whole thing later, reenacted as an out-of-body dance — overchoreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose contemporary movement here is otherwise rather striking — to the tune of “Predator,” a new Morissette song. (A little more than half the numbers in the show are from JLP; there are also a few from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept, a couple new ones, and even a tune from the 1998 Meg Ryan–Nicolas Cage movie City of Angels.)
Along the way, we go through protests, marriage counseling, back-alley opioid scores, bitchy Connecticut coffee klatches, an overdose, and an extremely bad breakup. That’s when Jo discovers Frankie in bed with another classmate, Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) — “He was wearing dog tags with no shirt like a douche,” Jo yells — and vents with “You Oughta Know.” Patten starts the first halting words in almost a whisper: “I want you to know / That I’m happy for you.” But as the song builds in volume and intensity, it’s clear she’s not simply singing; she’s trying to pull the love out of her body. It’s an emotional exorcism — and a performance that leaves her, and the audience, exhausted and exhilarated after its rock-concert-level conclusion.
“You Oughta Know” is also one of the few songs that sounds dynamite. Tom Kitt, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Next to Normal composer, did the music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements (he did the same for Head Over Heels, featuring the music of the Go-Go’s, and the Green Day musical American Idiot). But the sound mixing at the Broadhurst Theatre is doing his work — and Morissette’s — no favors. Too often singers, especially Stanley, end up in a shouting match with the musicians. (Spoiler: The orchestra will always win.) And in the finale — a sun-saturated self-actualization ensemble number reminiscent of Next to Normal’s “Light,” Spring Awakening’s “The Song of Purple Summer,” and Dear Evan Hansen’s “All we see is sky.… All we see is light” finale — when we finally get a snippet of “Thank U,” Morissette’s 1998 harmonious hymn to gratitude, it’s obliterated by the “You Learn” counterpoint. Well, as a wise woman once said…you live, you learn. B