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Jade McLeod performs in the a production of Jagged Little Pill. McLeod’s Toronto opening-night performance of Alanis Morissette's You Oughta Know earned a partial mid-show standing ovation.Matthew Murphy/Handout

  • Title: Jagged Little Pill
  • Book by: Diablo Cody
  • Music by: Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard
  • Lyrics by: Alanis Morissette
  • Additional songs by: Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth
  • Director: Diane Paulus
  • Actors: Benjamin Eakeley, Teralin Jones, Dillon Klena, Jade McLeod, Julie Reiber, Allison Sheppard
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Nov. 26

There’s a moment near the end of the musical Jagged Little Pill when one character knowingly says to another, “You’re a lot.”

That same quote could apply to the show itself.

Like the 1995 Alanis Morissette album that inspired it, Jagged Little Pill is full of beauty, pain and raw emotion – all the things that have made the recording an enduring work of art. But the story Diablo Cody has created to tie the songs together, while occasionally brilliant, is filled with enough hot-button issues to fill out several shows.

From opiate addiction and gender issues to white saviourism and rape, there’s a lot to unpack in this North American tour of the Broadway musical. Thankfully, Morissette’s songs, a talented cast and Diane Paulus’s direction make that unpacking intriguing to watch – if a little exhausting.

It’s right before the Christmas holidays, and picture-perfect Connecticut mom Mary Jane Healy (Julie Reiber) is writing her annual holiday letter to friends and family. She discusses her husband Steve’s (Benjamin Eakeley) promotion, her daughter Frankie’s (Teralin Jones) writing and her beloved son Nick’s (Dillon Klena) early acceptance to Harvard. She also mentions bouncing back from a car accident, mostly through yoga and natural remedies.

What she leaves out, however, is that her husband has been working 60-hour weeks and is addicted to internet porn (she sees his browser history) and that she herself has become hooked on painkillers after the accident. She doesn’t yet know that her adopted child Frankie is bisexual and is doing more than just hanging out with best friend Jo (Jade McLeod) upstairs in her bedroom. And before she knows it, golden boy Nick is going to be involved in something that will bring the Healys’ world crashing down … if someone doesn’t finally speak the truth.

You can see why the creators decided to turn the album – with a couple of other Morissette songs added – into a musical. After all, the outlines of a narrative are there even in the song titles: All I Really Want (talk about having a pre-existing “I want” song!), Smiling, Perfect, Forgiven, You Oughta Know … all ending with the wise, redemptive You Learn.

What Cody does so well, however – she won a Tony Award for the book – is flesh out the characters and situations so that the songs almost feel as if they were written for the show and not shoehorned in.

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McLeod, left, and Teralin Jones in Jagged Little Pill.Evan Zimmerman/Handout

There are plenty of memorable sequences, including Canadian McLeod’s scorching version of You Oughta Know that, on opening night, earned the non-binary performer a partial mid-show standing ovation. And Cody and Paulus even insert some meta-jokes in the piece. When aspiring poet Frankie offers up her song Ironic to her high school creative writing workshop, her classmates tear it apart, pedantically arguing that her illustrations aren’t examples of irony – much in the same way that internet trolls have critiqued those same lyrics for years.

But the most effective number in the show comes early on, when Mary Jane, after trying unsuccessfully to refill her OxyContin prescription at a pharmacy, breaks down and makes a back alley deal for pills, all while singing Smiling. Cody and Paulus have Mary Jane singing about hitting rock bottom, rewinding the scene so that she literally retraces her steps. In any other medium, even film or TV, this wouldn’t work, but onstage it evokes her regret and desire to find out how she got to this desperate place. Haunting.

Unfortunately, when a big plot point involving the fallout from an out-of-control holiday party occurs, the writing and direction become far less nuanced. The themes that emerge from this development are important, including resurfaced trauma, consent and believing women’s stories about abuse. (The show should come with a trigger warning for all of these issues, as well as addiction.) But the way they’re handled could be more artful.

Frankie’s African-American background, too, could be explored in more depth – or in an entirely separate show.

And then there’s Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography, which flits in and out of the show. At times his movement is effective, especially when the dance ensemble mimics or riffs on what a singer’s doing. When McLeod charmingly delivers the adolescent anthem Hand in My Pocket, the dancers enhance the mood and give the sequence a boost of energy. Reiber’s Mary Jane has a harrowing scene near the end in which she wrestles with her dance doppelganger, and the metaphor works because her trauma has caused her to detach from her old self.

But at other times, Cherkaoui will have a young, lithe dancer gesticulate wildly in front of someone to suggest all the roiling emotions the character is holding back. This dramatic pill feels harder to swallow.

Riccardo Hernández’s scenic design works just fine, the outlines of a suburban home providing a convenient flat surface for Lucy Mackinnon’s videos to help orient us. Paulus often moves furniture around so we get alternate takes on a scene. And Emily Rebholz’s costumes do a lot to establish the social and economic hierarchy of this milieu.

The male characters are a little less developed, but Eakeley, Klena and Rishi Golani – the latter playing Phoenix, a student who bonds with Frankie over poetry – fill them out with care and compassion.

McLeod scores with some great one-liners and two of the best-known songs in Morissette’s catalogue.

Jones brings a spontaneity to her line readings and seems completely at ease onstage, even if her singing could have a bit more personality. Allison Sheppard makes a sympathetic Bella, a fellow student.

Vocal powerhouse Reiber delivers a complex and deeply felt performance as the seemingly perfect but deeply flawed Mary Jane. Before it closed on Broadway, Reiber played pilot Beverley Bass in Come From Away. That’s appropriate; in Jagged Little Pill, she soars.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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