CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The problem with most jukebox musicals is not that they have tiny brains, though many do, but tiny hearts. When they are not purely escapist or flat-out inane, they are narrowly concerned with the airbrushed circumstances of their own creation. They reach only feebly, if at all, into the world.
That is definitively not the problem with “Jagged Little Pill,” the passionate if overwrought Alanis Morissette jukebox musical at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center here. The show, with a book by screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) and staging by director Diane Paulus (“Waitress”), takes on the good work we are always asking new musicals to do: the work of singing about real things.
If only it didn’t sing about all of them all at once.
The reason it does so, at least in part, is that Morissette’s songs are so rich, complicated and suggestive. Like most pop, they lead with attitude: often, as in hits like “You Oughta Know” and “All I Really Want,” the furious sarcasm of a smart, spurned woman who recognizes her superiority but takes little comfort in it.
Beyond that, though, Morissette’s lyrics, no less than the daredevil melodies and chunky grooves of the music — most of it written with producer Glen Ballard — do more than state and restate canned feelings in the manner of earworms by Abba or The Four Seasons. They establish a persona; they imply stories.
In creating a narrative to wrap around them, Cody could therefore have gone almost anywhere. Instead she goes almost everywhere, exploring the agonies of eight major characters, each with a poster-sized problem.
Four of them are the wealthy, unhappy Healy family of Connecticut: mother Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley), a pill-popper with a secret trauma; father Steve (Sean Allan Krill), a workaholic lawyer with a porn addiction; son Nick (Derek Klena), an overprogrammed high school senior whose moral compass goes briefly awry; and daughter Frankie (Celia Gooding), whom the Healys adopted in infancy.
Frankie, who is black, basically lives in a permanent state of having her hair touched by white girls. When a friend witheringly describes her adoption as the “Pinterest fail” of an on-trend mother, she doesn’t disagree. Still, her rebellion, in the form of short shorts, gay dabbling and hand-painted protest signs, hews closely to the musical comedy handbook.
However thinly developed, Frankie’s rebellion is healthier (and subtler) than her family’s calamitous (and overpainted) denial. When we meet the Healys, Mary Jane is writing their annual Christmas letter, bragging about family accomplishments we immediately understand will be trashed by the time the next one gets written.
That should be more than enough for one musical, but “Jagged Little Pill” focuses on four other characters as well: Frankie’s sort-of girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten); her sort-of boyfriend, Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano); Nick’s callow buddy Andrew (Logan Hart); and their emotionally fragile neighbor, Bella (Kathryn Gallagher). All get drawn into what we discover late in the first act is the musical’s main subject: the trauma of rape culture.
Much of this is movingly done, and it’s moving in any case just to see it attempted. I like the way Cody connects so many dots as the story grows: between the family’s habit of denial and the community’s; between identity politics as true self-expression and as mere virtue signaling; among different kinds of addiction in individuals and in society.
But all that connecting of dots sometimes results in a scribble. It’s confusing that most of the blame in this unapologetically feminist story is loaded, especially at first, on the brittle, SoulCycling mother. And though she eventually emerges as the spine of the story, it takes a long time to pick her out of the crowd.
This makes it seem — inaccurately, I think, for this is the rare jukebox musical without even a whiff of mendacity about it — that the creators’ top goal was to pack in as much of Morissette’s catalog as possible. Still, “Jagged Little Pill” features an astonishing 22 of her songs, including all 12 from the 1995 album that gives the show its title. (Eight others come from later releases; two are newly written for the occasion.) They sound fantastic, if a little undifferentiated, in Tom Kitt’s arrangements for a 10-piece band.
And when they sit just right on the story they are dramatically compelling as well. “Hand in My Pocket” turns out to be a perfect musical comedy charm song, introducing the adorable Jo. “That I Would Be Good,” divvied up among three of the teenagers, makes a surprisingly apt number for characters arriving at similar moments in their development. And “Forgiven,” sung by Stanley at the Act I curtain, seems purpose-written to dramatize the turning point of Mary Jane’s addiction.
Paulus stages these numbers simply — on sets by Riccardo Hernandez enlivened by expressive video projections by Finn Ross — so that you never lose track, despite the dense and sometimes abstract lyrics, of the specific story context in which they occur. “Forgiven,” for instance, is placed in a church suggested mostly by shadowy congregants and a votive candle stand, letting Stanley’s exquisite work shine as drama.
But other songs are unable to shed their pop skin. Some don’t even try: “Ironic,” Morissette’s biggest hit, is self-consciously (if amusingly) shoehorned into the plot as Frankie’s “essay-poem-story-type thing” for creative writing class. And “You Oughta Know” is such a showstopper for Patten (a Medium Alison in “Fun Home”) that it seems to leave the story behind.
That’s partly because of the sheer volume of musical material; the second act, with 13 songs, starts to feel like a concert, a problem Paulus often underlines as if not trusting the material.
As a result, “Jagged Little Pill,” though staged in the 560-seat Loeb, sometimes seems pitched to an arena. (Or at Broadway, anyway.) The band slides on and offstage for big numbers, the lighting by Justin Townsend blinds you with color and the ensemble of 13 performs Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s hip-hop-style choreography as if their lives depended on it.
Slick earnestness is a tough swallow — a jagged little pill of its own. At least for now, this well intentioned and intermittently thrilling musical makes you want to applaud its efforts at “wokeness” while also wondering if wokeness has become just another form of virtue signaling. It feels like what might have happened if the Tribe from “Hair” (which Paulus also directed, in 2008) had actually made it to college — probably Mount Holyoke.
“Jagged Little Pill” runs through July 15 at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; 617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.