Sunday, September 14, 2014

theatre review THE ALBUM PROJECT: JAGGED LITTLE PILL, Nearly Naked Theatre, September 7

Click here to read my review of Nearly Naked Theatre's production of The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill at Talkin' Broadway

Caitlin Ary and Nathan Parrett
The lyrics of hit songs often conjure up images in our minds of the characters and situations that the words create. However, it's a pretty ballsy move to attempt to actually dramatize on stage, with a fairly large cast, an entire award-winning, multi-million copy selling recording, in the exact track order, and have it make any sense. But that's just what Kate Sullivan Gibbens has done. Along with co-conceiver Jonah Platt, Gibbens also directs and co-stars in this 65-minute theatrical version of Alanis Morissette's groundbreaking album "Jagged Little Pill," and the resulting piece, entitled The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill, is one of the most unusual, inventive and fascinating theatrical events I've seen in a very long time. The show originated in Los Angeles this summer and Nearly Naked Theatre is presenting for two weekends the "Arizona Extension" of the production with most of the same cast from the LA run.

Released in 1995, "Jagged Little Pill" represented the emotions and music of a generation of young adults, but resonated with just about everyone. The combination of angst, anger, emotional heartbreak, depression and rage that was rampant in the mid 1990s came through strong and clear with the combination of the intensity of Morisette's vocals and the beauty and honesty in her clear, descriptive lyrics. With numerous top ten hits and selling over 33 millions of copies, it catapulted Morissette to superstar status and earned four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year.

Now The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill isn't a traditional "musical" in any sense of the word, and the production could best be described as a song cycle or a theatrical interpretation of the album. The story of the piece, as far as I can make out, tells the tale of Mary Jane, a woman who has just suffered a big breakup. Unable to cope with her sadness and anger, she ends up in a rehab center (or is it the psych ward?), discovers others like her, and deals with the emotional repercussions of losing the man she loved, ultimately rediscovering herself in the process.

Some of the "Jagged Little Pill" songs are more easily dramatized than others. From the intense emotions of a woman breaking up with her boyfriend in "You Oughta Know" to the sweet love song "Head Over Feet" (here expertly turned into a duet) to "Your House," which tells the somber, personal story of a woman, alone in her boyfriend's house, finding a love letter to him that she didn't write. The ones that lend themselves less to dramatization still receive spirted musical orchestrations from Jonah Platt that feature a guitar-heavy, driving sound, pulsating drum beats, and layered harmonies.

The cast all have rock style voices, so the songs fit perfectly within their vocal abilities, though none of them, fortunately, attempts to mimic Morissette's famous vocal style. Caitlin Ary is practically perfect as Mary Jane, with a raw and intense yet pure voice that easily wraps itself around Morissette's heartbreaking lyrics. With her stark blonde hair she is also someone who your eyes are immediately drawn to, and she manages to make you instantly connect with Mary Jane and want her to succeed on her road to recovery. As the two men in Mary Jane's life, Nathan Parrett and Casey Hayden provide skilled vocals, with Parrett's earthy voice giving a rich poignancy on a slightly slowed down version of "Head Over Feet" that is one of the evenings highlights. Hayden's raw tones on "Wake Up," delivered in a duet with Ary singing the song "Not the Doctor," with his soaring delivery of the lyric "and what goes around never comes around to you," is especially moving. Gibbens has a nice level of intensity that she brings to her parts in both "Perfect" and "Right Through You," and Tyler Olshansky gives an appropriate sense of personal connection and rawness to "Forgiven" and a clear connection with the main character in "Mary Jane." The rest of the ensemble, Michael Noah Levine, Michelle Raitzin and Rebecca Dowdy, are featured heavily throughout and provide plenty of foot-stomping anger and heartwrenching angst.

Comparisons to another theatrical version of a rock album, Green Day's American Idiot, are sure to come up, but Gibbens proves you don't need a multi-million dollar budget or a Tony Award winning director to turn a hit pop album into a piece of theatre that has a poignancy and resonance to it. She's also found a way to add an upbeat ending to the evening (as the album's final track "Your House" is a very somber number). Using one of Morissette's post-"Jagged Little Pill" follow up hits as an encore allows a final connection with the audience that is both positive and uplifting, and in a strangely effective way actually wraps up the story of Mary Jane as well. Hearing these songs again, almost twenty years later, with that many more years of personal experience, will also give you a more in-depth understanding of the emotions of these songs.

Does it all work? Absolutely not. Will some people see this and hate it or think "what the hell was that?" Most definitely, especially anyone who isn't familiar with the songs. But for those who are familiar with the material or for fans of rock music or theatrical events, just sit back, let the music, lyrics and emotions wash over you and experience something that is unlike any other piece of theatre out there.

The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill runs through September 16th, 2014, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at

Photo: Laura Durant

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