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‘Jagged Little Pill,’ on Broadway is Electric, Dazzling in Its Power, Scope and Complexity

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” reached the stratosphere as one of the best selling albums of all time almost twenty-five years ago. The reason is clear. In its contradictions, biting satire and themes it resonated with its global audience, topping the charts in 13 countries worldwide. With that appeal behind it, the notion that the music might land in a stage production was a given, especially if a superlative writer could write an exciting book so the right director would then eventually shepherd the production to Broadway.

And so it happened. Diablo Cody, multiple award winning writer of the film Juno (2007) synchronized her sardonic fresh, perspective with Morissette’s bile-dripping, alternative rock featured on the 1995 album. The meld effected the gyrating musical that premiered at American Repertory Theater, Harvard University in 2018 exquisitely and brilliantly directed by Diane Paulus. The creative team’s synergy further transformed the production into the present dynamo which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in early December.

How is the musical Jagged Little Pill not just another teenage-angst-driven-juked-up melodramatic foray into identity, social acceptance and self-love? The glossy superficiality of the pumped up, unmemorable, alternative, post-grunge, pop rock light, the stuff that “OK” musicals are made of, is nowhere to be found in Jagged Little Pill. This is because of the grainy, raw vitality of Morissette’s and Glen Ballard’s music, supervised, orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt, with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth.

Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

(L to R): Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

On the contrary, the production, that some affectionately liken to a juke box musical, defies that definition. First, there is its particularity. It is hard-edged and profound; the arc of Cody’s story spirals and complicates as she lays bare the Healy family  while satirizing the underlying mores of the tony community where they live. Additionally, the finely tuned characterizations penetrate with authentic details. Their development draws us into the realm of gnawing secret addictions and the currently overripe, hellish thrall of Oxycodone, brand name OxyContin.

Whether we know of the relentlessness of this drug from experiences of friends, family members, neighbors or ourselves, we empathize with the characters as they confront its lethal power in a felt irrevocability. We’ve seen countless news stories and films on the subject, like the HBO documentary This Drug Can Kill You (2017). We’ve heard of the extremities of addiction resulting in the destruction of family bonds, the tenor of which Cody examines through the characterization of mother Mary Jane Healy her protagonist.

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

And what of the story of the wife and mother who broke her arm and kept on breaking it to justify prescriptions of oxycodone? Typical of addicts desperate for the opioid. Prescription meds addicts even have committed robbery and murder. (See article on David Laffer) Of course the drug should be taken off the market and banned but big pharma would lose money in its profitability; addicted middle and upper class women can afford to pay. Why give up on a good thing even when doctors now curtail its use which pushes addicts to the street where they buy OxyContin laced with poisonous Fentanyl for the trip of a lifetime?

Why don’t such individuals “get help” especially when they can afford it? Indeed! Help is the last step in the journey of the addicted. It implies that the family interacts with each other because they must be the main support system of the addict. Cody’s Healy family members do not interact much. They live quiet lives of desperation seeking their own “thing” when we first meet them, though by all appearances from their home, to their lifestyles to their social connections, these folks “have it together.” Even adopted Frankie Healy (the spectacular Ceila Rose Gooding) is a mess, though you would never suspect it, because she asserts her powerful personality as a young, black woman who is assured in her gay relationship with Jo (the adorable, rockin’ Lauren Patten who sings Morissette’s signature number “You Oughta Know” to a standing ovation).

Lauren Patten, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Lauren Patten, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

How are the posted social media photos of the Healys as the smiling, joyous family fakes? The image is more important than the reality. And if the image looks good enough, maybe the family members will believe it’s true. How can we fault them at the time of Trumpism, when the president and his family and his supporters do the same, sporting the “best” of everything, from perfect presidential behavior, to perfect relationships with his staff who are loyal to him because he is filled with grace? Such perfection has not been seen since the “savior.” Likewise, the Healy families “perfection” in the view of their friends and neighbors is bar none.

The Healys, as representatives of most suburban middle families traffic in mendacity though such cowardice destroys. As it turns out, lying is the mother of addiction. And addictions salve the soul. With pornography, sex, oxycodone, adderall, alcohol, heroin, etc., life’s miseries become doable and for a time “everything is beautiful.” Of course such duplicity can only go on for so long before the veil is ripped and the ugliness shows through. In the production the songs “All I Really Want,” Hand in My Pocket” and “Smiling” clue us into the lies. However, the family keeps their secrets from each other until there is a turning point acutely rendered at the end of Act I during the songs “Wake Up” and “Forgiven.”

Elizabeth Stanley, Heather Lang, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

(L to R): Elizabeth Stanley, Heather Lang, ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

The growing divide in each of the characters eventually earthquakes. The one who is the glue holding the family together, perfect mother and wife Mary Jane (the gobsmacking Elizabeth Stanley) gets shaken to her core. The precipitating factor is oxycodone, but Mary Jane’s issues run silent and deep. The drug only suppresses and numbs her from acknowledging the soul gnawing canker worm that eats away at her image of perfection while she bleeds like an open wound inside.

As the musical follows the unraveling conflicts between Mary Jane and husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) son Nick (Derek Klena) and adopted daughter Frankie, other hot button issues come to the fore sweeping the family up in their detritus. These include but are not limited to our paternalistic rape culture, Evangelical Christianity’s homophobia, pornography addiction which deadens intimacy between couples, and black-white cultural bias to name a few.

Nora Schell, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Nora Schell, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

In the well crafted book, music and thoughtful lyrics, Cody and Morissette reinforce an ancient folkway of family structure; there often is little communication beyond functional superficialities. Sadly, profound communication belies self-awareness and soul authenticity. In such a family unit where obfuscation and a general lack of will to work together as a family become routine, addiction is easy. Finding a life worth living individually and with one’s family becomes impossible. The “impossibility” impinges on the family structure and each individual family member as the situation worsens for all.

And so it goes for wife Mary Jane and Steve. Though Steve does make an attempt to reach out to her, she rebuffs him. So it goes for Nick, the “perfect”son (his rendition of “Perfect” is excellent) who lives out his parent’s dreams not his own, and for Frankie who is “all that” proud. Each self-deceives. Each is distracted by the race for perfection and by their manic avoidance of failure and the recognition of their faults which comprise their endearing humanity. In fearing the stigma of being a “loser” (each family member defines it differently and never discusses their own perceptions until the end) each launches off into their own journey of error which impacts the family as a whole. When they become aware of their self-delusions (the exceptional song “Wake Up”) it is a boon that they and other characters come to grips with by the play’s conclusion (in the song “You Learn”).

Derek Klena, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Derek Klena, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

Whether rich or poor, young or old, life is learning, and of course with learning comes change, pain and reconciliation. But first as the linchpin of the family, Mary Jane experiences the long and grueling events in her relationships first, with her addicted alter-ego, then her children and husband. Through trial and error she learns to explode the self-deception, lies, defensiveness and powerlessness conveyed to her family, who become estranged from her as she embraces the drug as her panacea (this is terrifically rendered in movement during the song “Unforgiven”).

But before any of the family learn that their arrogance and attempt at perfection is delusion, they have to be awake to register they are fantastical creatures on a racetrack toward oblivion. The wonder of Cody’s book is that she has Steve and Nick on the road to awareness before Mary Jane, and Frankie who is blinded by her interest in Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) which destroys Jo (“Your House”).

Derek Klena, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Derek Klena, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

We note the disintegration of Mary Jane’s soul, whose behaviors are out of the addict’s playbook. Elizabeth Stanley crafts her characterization with nuanced sensitivity and empathy. She inhabits the ethos of the addict as the drug’s deadly chemicals subvert her being. Stanley is in the moment, from moment to moment with her lyrical voice and nuanced devolution. Our concern and identification with Mary Jane is elicited by Stanley’s prodigious talent.

The same may be said for the actors who inhabit the family members: Ceila Rose Gooding’s Frankie- activist and hypocrite blind to her own foibles; Sean Allan Krill’s loving, caring husband who stands by Mary Jane and reveals he wants to help her become well ( “Mary Jane”), though he is a “work-a-holic” and has an addiction to pornography and masturbation.

Cody has rounded out these characters and the actors thread their depth through the eye of the acting/singing needle. All have gorgeous voices. No less talented is Derek Klena. Klena’s emotional crisis (whether to jeopardize his life path and testify to a rape he saw or keep it a secret along with his unhappiness living his parents’ goals for his life) is heartfelt. Initially, it is Nick who sounds the alarm about his family; Kitt’s orchestrations manifest this twice in a long note from a brass instrument (is it an A or C?) almost like a harbinger that a turning and reckoning must happen or they all will be immeasurably harmed.

Elizabeth Stanley, The Company, Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Elizabeth Stanley, The Company,’Jagged Little Pill,’ Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

Paulus’ staging and her vision, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s movement to evoke the characters’ emotions are smashing. The characters’ inner rage and torment and Mary Jane’s double mindedness about her addiction’s seduction and her love of self-destruction (“Uninvited”) are clarified in the movement and the dance. Paulus has staged the characters in various scenes so that they are propelled in circles using the props (desks, walls). The effect reveals their confusion and inability to straighten out and to seek emotional life paths that are not dead ended in circularity. Paulus/Cherkaoui also integrate break-dance movement with the songs as a metaphor, representing the emotional inner churning and rage of the characters. Paulus makes sure that the character rage and their emotional circularity are cogently integrated with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design and Justin Townsend’s lighting design.

The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

The Company of ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

The frame of the house in lines of light in various colors abides throughout. Its symbolism recalls how the structure of family and home and what family members experience ther, is carried everywhere into relationships, into school, into work, into social activities. Justin Townsend’s lighting design is effective as it is used to reflect emotions. For example, Jo’s fury in “You Oughta Know” is aligned with Townsend bathing the stage in red. Patten’s Jo is fabulously wild; the injustice she feels about Frankie’s demeaning mistreatment is a show stopper made all the more wonderful by Townsend’s lighting and Cherkaoui’s movement.

Additionally, “Wake Up,” and “Forgiven” (as the family members’ backs to the walls of their own making spin them around) are particularly stunning. In these numbers and in “Predator,” “Uninvited” and “Mary Jane,” Paulus, the company and creative team pull out all the stops. And “No” by Kathryn Gallagher as Bella (she has been raped by Nick’s friend) singing with the support of the company, should be taped and played for every Sex Ed. class in high schools: the signs are especially noteworthy.

At its heart Jagged Little Pill is about family. It is provocative, in your face, striking, salient. If one considers how easy it is to couple and how hard it is to move toward a kind, generous, integrative family who works on their failures by loving in overdrive, Cody’s Healy family, portrayed in its jaggedness is a superb textured unit. As a key theme, there is always hope for redemption and reconciliation Cody suggests: for them, for us.

Add Alanis Morissette’s music, with Kitt’s orchestrations, Paulus’ metaphoric, symbolic staging, the amazing performers, the lighting and brilliantly minimalistic and always seamless and mobile scenic design, Jagged Little Pill is a musical worthy of the nearly twenty-five year wait for these creatives to bring this sterling production together. It is the right season for Jagged Little Pill to take flight with this cast, Cody’s sheer audacity and Paulus scaling the mountaintops of her craft.

I’ve said enough. See it with your eyes wide open and enjoy it awake. It is an experience you won’t easily forget. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

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‘Gloria: A Life,’ Starring Christine Lahti, directed by Diane Paulus, Off Broadway

Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Gloria A Life, Emily Mann, Diane Paulus, Daryl Roth Theatre

(L to R): Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti, Fedna Jacquet and Francesca Fernandez McKenzie in ‘Gloria: A Life,’ by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Joan Marcus)

An older Irish white woman cabbie driving Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy to an event in Boston after overhearing their discussion about abortion said, “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!” Since then you may have seen that quote on cups, t-shirts, and other memorabilia. That priceless comment/story and countless others, plus witticisms, jokes, truths, and historical facts spill out in Gloria: A Life, written by Emily Mann and directed by Diane Paulus, currently at the Daryl Roth Theatre.

This exceptional production about the life and times of Gloria Steinem moved me to laughter and tears. Writing with extraordinarily seamless beauty, Mann trenchantly underscores how and why Gloria Steinem moved from bondage to freedom in her own life. And this account of how her transformation helped/helps countless women and men move toward freedom from destructive gender folkways resounds with power and reveals why Steinem has become a living legend

Steinem’s development and experiences, and her own influences from so many other women, serve as the backbone of this superb production. With archived photos, videos, voiceovers, and more, the director and writer form a mosaic of the unique perspectives of men and women who have taken part in and still embrace the women’s movement. We discover a key point: that Gloria’s continuing evolution has strode in tandem with the movement’s multiple stages.

Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti, Gloria Steinem,Gloria A Life, Emly Mann, Diane Paulus, Daryl Roth Theatre,

(L to R): Joanna Glushak as Gloria’s mom, Christine Lahti as Gloria in ‘Gloria: A Life,’ by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus (Joan Marcus)

Adroitly, director Diane Paulus employs an ingenious, comfortable, interactive approach. She intersperses details, facts, stories, and themes about how women transformed the culture, through Christine Lahti’s portrayal of Gloria. Steinem’s development spins out from the stereotyping oppression and laws against women of her youth, to the legal revolution in support of women, in her 30s, to the current legal assault on women’s rights, in her later years. (As a reminder, our country has yet to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.) The actors take on multiple roles to reveal examples of the nullifying attitudes Gloria encountered early on. Lahti’s humorous portrayal sprinkled with good will reveals how Gloria eventually dealt with such attitudes as her eyes opened and she evolved.

As Lahti’s Steinem sanguinely points out, anti-feminist groups (represented by Phyllis Schlafly in the past) ultimately have the bottom line as their motive. Profits, not people’s concerns, fuel the hate rhetoric against feminists. Attempting to understand the logical truths behind what women are saying puts a downer on money making. Better for companies to stir people’s emotions with propaganda that makes them avid consumers. As such they buy products they don’t need to momentarily salve their soul sickness, stimulated by advertisements that browbeat them for not being perfect. The convenient, vacuous, catchy, divisive memes and gender-perfect advertisements perennially harm.

As she references such truths, Christine Lahti inhabits Gloria Steinem with joie de vivre and humility. Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesa Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan portray the towering women who impacted Gloria. These include major influencers like her mom (a journalist who left her work to join her husband), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (who created the first nonsexist, multi-racial childcare centers), the feisty, no-nonsense Flo Kennedy, and lawyer, activist, and U.S. Representative Bella Abzug.

Christine Lahti, Gloria Steinem, Gloria A Life, Emily Mann, Diane Paulus

Christine Lahti as Gloria Steinem in ‘Gloria: A Life,’ by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus (Joan Marcus)

Mann took from Gloria’s 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road the feminist icon’s early experiences and her trials as a journalist. Ironically, when she wrote the book, Steinem most probably didn’t imagine she would be speaking at the greatest global Women’s March ever in 2016. The production includes photographs and video clips of Steinem speaking in Washington, D.C. Though the women’s movement, like Gloria, has evolved, so much more work must be done in the Trump era. The inspiration to get us to move and participate in this work activates the

Particularly startling, Paulus includes video clips of the demeaning, acid attitudes of interviewers like Harry Reasoner, who later apologized when Ms Magazine sold out in eight days. For those too young to realize how far women have come, we see archived photos of memes showing with women whose only functions are as housewives and sex objects. Photos of such advertisements in the 1950s and 1960s prompts Lahti’s Gloria to quip, “Is this what some Americans are nostalgic for?”

I particularly appreciated the historical facts about the movement revealed in archived material. The production cleverly projects video and photographs over two back walls on opposite sides. The entire production seats with benches and colorful pillows for the audience in the round. On the stage in the squarish round, red Persian rugs and pillows suggest discussion circles.

Indeed the discussion circle is an important part of the production. In Act II a special guest each night opens the circle. Audience members may remain or leave. This theme also abides throughout: The discussion and integration of ideas happen in a circle where everyone sits equally. For the hierarchy (the pyramid) to diminish, we must hear, see, listen to, and interact with each other as comfortably as our Native American forebears chose to do. Steinem points out that Native American democracy included such discussion circles and caucuses. Women were integral parts of these, a fact that stunned (and inspired) Benjamin Franklin when he learned about culture of the Iroquois Confederation

Christine Lahti, Gloria Steinem, Fedna Jaquet, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Gloria A Life, Emily Mann, Diane Paulus

(L to R): Christine Lahti as Gloria Steinem, Fedna Jaquet as Dorothy Pitman Hughes in ‘Gloria: A Life’ (Joan Marcus)

Gloria credits her ideas and actions to the mighty courage and determination of black women, Hispanic women, and Native American women. In underscoring who remained instrumental in spearheading second-wave feminism, she presents a list with photographs of black women who were crucial to the movement. Paulus projects their pictures with inspirational quotes on two screens. The list includes Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Sloan, and Alice Walker. Wikipedia doesn’t recognize some of these women, but Gloria credits them for their prodigious efforts.

Finally, wonderful milestones are noted. For example we see acutely how our culture changed. Yet more change is needed with regard to the artificial gender images fostered by corporate agendas. As Lahti inhabits Steinem, Mann’s brilliant encapsulation of Gloria’s words through Paulus’ sterling direction opens our eyes. What we may have thought we knew bears hearing and seeing again and again. Indeed, this all-female production stirs us as an amazing, uplifting experience. Most importantly, it has the earthiness, historical universality, and erudition to appeal to all genders, races, and religions.

Would even evangelicals appreciate this production? Of course. Don’t women make up more than half of their numbers? Indeed, sharing stories about men’s personal habits always resonates. For example the actors include humorous stories about non-partnership minded men who leave their underwear on the floor, expecting their wives to pick it up. Such stories of personal lives are integrated beautifully to illustrate the importance of discussion among women. The more women talk to each other, the more healing comes, the more solutions to problems may be found.

At the heart of what is called the women’s movement, Gloria’s life’s work promotes freedom for men. Indeed, women and men both need freedom from the nullifying, dis-empowering macho and female roles of domination and passivity. These roles deny personality, growth, evolution, partnership, friendship, companionship, and the integration of the family unit beyond commands and orders.

Christine Lahti, Gloria Steinem, Joanna Glushak, Bella Abzug, Gloria: A Life, Emily Mann, Diane Paulus

(L to R): Christine Lahti as Gloria Steinem, Joanna Glushak as Bella Abzug in ‘Gloria: A Life,’ directed by Diane Paulus, written by Emily Mann (Joan Marcus)

Gloria: A Life suggests that women and men should have equal opportunities for medical care, financial wellbeing, family care, and prosperity. That the privileged wealthy minority will use gender division to cloud our eyes and misdirect our pursuit for human rights for all is a given. Noted, and stopped, say Gloria and millions of others. We must work to bridge the divide and jettison such roles, which crucify all genders and destroy the social good.

By looking at the past, though we may not have been alive at the time, we understand the value of what women globally endured then and now. Also, by understanding the past, we appreciate and value the hard-won freedoms (Roe v Wade, LBGTQ marriage equality, a woman’s right to use her own name, etc.) that women in democracies enjoy. Still, throughout these moments of progress highlighted by the actors and visuals in the production, concerns about the present political climate whisper.

Christine Lahti, Gloria Steinem, ensemble, Gloria: A Life, Emily Mann, Diane Paulus, Daryl Roth Theatre

Christine Lahti (center) as Gloria Steinem with cast of ‘Gloria: A Life,’ by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Understanding becomes crucial to our growth. The production fosters understanding. And from this understanding we realize that the current political partisanship has pushed us to a precipice. All the more noxious are the agendas right-wing organizations like the Federalist Society and conservative think tanks use to consolidate power on the right. For these uber-conservative organizations, women’s rights must be overthrown and diminished as a political initiative. The prize to be gained includes corporate hegemony. The power and money behind these groups are used to maintain supremacy over puppet leaders. And they intend to employ “unbeatable” partisan, conservative voting blocks of nativists, anti-feminist groups (Neo-Nazis, white supremacists), and evangelicals (anti-abortionists, etc.) to maintain or usurp power by any means necessary.

For what it encourages – to understand ourselves today through viewing the past – Gloria: A Life is a must-see. Additionally, you will enjoy its humanity, good will, and uplifting remembrance of history, as well as Christine Lahti as Gloria, the sterling ensemble performances, the active staging, and Mann’s integrated writing of Gloria’s perspectives. All of this enthralls and contributes to making the production soar.

Gloria: A Life runs until 31 March 2019 at the Daryl Roth Theatre in NYC. Stay for the discussion circle in Act II and raise questions with the cast, audience, and special guest. Or just listen. Tickets are available online

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