The Australian Arts and Theatre Industry Gets Jolted Back to Life After Two Years of Pain
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
Reviewed by Brendan Daynes
In 1995, Canadian singer Alanis Morisette, released an album that would go on to become one of the best selling albums of all time. Twenty five years later the songs from this album, plus some others from Morissette’s catalogue, and two original songs, form the backbone of the new jukebox musical “Jagged Little Pill”.
Teaming up with a creative team that “just couldn’t say no”, including Tony award winning Director Diane Paulis (Pippin), with a book by Oscar winner Diablo Cody (Juno), “Jagged Little Pill” reinvents the powerful emotion of the original album skilfully, and brings it into the modern day.
The Melbourne Arts and theatre scene has been devastated for the last two years and productions are still being disrupted by COVID-19. Therefore the level of excitement and anticipation from the audience was heightened as we were introduced to the Healy family at the Melbourne premiere on Sunday 16th January.
The show depicts a picture of a perfect upper-middle class family in Connecticut that is on a sinking ship with no lifeboat. Mary Jane (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) and Steve (Tim Draxl) are the attractive parents who are passively aggressively dealing with a middle aged marriage discord. Mary Jane by strictly curating the family image, while secretly struggling with addiction, and Steve by diving into his work to try to provide financially for his family becomes more distanced and further disconnected. Their two children are Nick (Liam Head), the perfect son about to begin his Ivy league journey, and Frankie (Emily Nkomo), their adopted African American daughter who is going to change the world through her activism. Like their parents, both are experiencing their own privileged malaise. Nick who is an overachiever who is overwhelmed by the exceedingly high expectations of his parents, and Frankie who is a passionate activist who wants to save the world but feels she is misunderstood by her parents and is struggling to navigate her sexuality.
“Jagged Little Pill” depicts many of the struggles experienced in modern life and is unafraid to explore the many issues that some would consider taboo. Jo (Maggie McKenna), for example is Frankie’s best friend and is struggling with her sexuality and gender identity. Bella (Grace Miell), a victim of sexual assault is a friend of Nick and this becomes one of the central themes of the show.
The issues explored by “Jagged Little Pill” could have resulted in a show that the audience found arduous. However, ultimately it leaves the audience with a hopeful message and sheds light on what it is to be a human; we are innately flawed but we continually try to move forward, we learning from our mistakes that we make along the way.
Natalie Bassingthwaite and Tim Draxl are perfectly cast as MJ and Steve showcasing their accomplished vocal ability and impressive performances which show their acting skills through their vulnerability and courage. The junior cast members, many of whom are making their professional debut in this production, are certainly ones to watch. Grace Miell and Liam Head delivered a compelling performance and Emily Nkomo took on the material with ease. Overall; all the cast deliver stellar performances. however, the standout moment comes when Maggie McKenna belts out “You Outta Know”, their performance was full of authentic emotion and was certainly worthy of the standing ovation mid show.
The minimalistic set, consisting of mainly wheeled props and projection screens, is over arched by a lighting rig that portrays the cathedral ceiling of a family home where most of the story unfolds. Occasionally, the screens open up to reveal the onstage band who do an impressive job with the musical arrangements and this gives the performance a grungy and rock concert feel.
The ensemble cast do a remarkable job of showcasing why the original choreography and movement direction for the show won Sidi Large Cherkaoui, a Tony Award. There are moments of choreographic brilliance, early in show when MJ moves backwards through her day depicting her dependence on pain killers, where the cast appear in reverse for all of the movements, and another later in the show when she overdoses and we see a doppelgänger dancer-demon mimicking her agony through choreography. The ensemble do an impeccable job executing dynamic, honest and sometimes aggressive movement that is a fusion of many styles including hip hop motifs, contemporary fluidity and pedestrian movement that is so unrestrained that it at times appears improvised.
The Australian Production team, lead by fearless and full of life Resident Australian Director Leah Howard, should be commended on her perseverance and that of her teams, to continue through challenging times. They have lived by the message of the show and continued to move forward to bring this production to Australian audiences even when faced with insurmountable obstacles.
“Jagged Little Pill” will resonate with different audiences for different reasons. Twenty five years ago Morisette was trying to figure out who she was as an artist and fans identified their own conflicts within her raw, emotional delivery and honest lyrics. This production recreates this effect on audiences but with a modern lens depicting people who, ultimately, are trying to heal their pain and figure out who they are. As the finale “You Learn”, whose lyrics give the album and the show its name are “belted” out by the cast, it’s clear that life is like an essential medicine that must be swallowed to be enjoyed: a “Jagged Little Pill”.
Jagged Little Pill is currently playing in Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre. The production will play in Perth in May 2022 and Sydney in July 2022.
Jagged Little Pill
Melbourne – Comedy Theatre from 13th January 2022
Perth – Crown Theatre from 14th May 2022
Sydney – Theatre Royal Sydney from 9th July 2022