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Broadway Reviews

The Outsiders

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 11, 2024

The Outsiders. Music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine. Book by Adam Rapp with Justin Levine. Based on the novel by S.E. Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola's Motion Picture. Direction by Danya Taymor. Choreography by Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman. Scenography by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Cody Spencer. Projection design by Hana Kim. Music supervision, arrangements & orchestrations by Justin Levine Vocal arrangements by David Loud. Music direction by Matt Hinkley.
Cast:Brody Grant, Sky Lakota-Lynch, Joshua Boone, Brent Comer, Jason Schmidt, Emma Pittman, Daryl Tofa, Kevin William Paul, Dan Berry, Jordan Chin, Milena J. Comeau, Barton Cowperthwaite, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Henry Julián Gendron, RJ Higton, Wonza Johnson, Sean Harrison Jones, Maggie Kuntz, Renni Anthony Magee, SarahGrace Mariani, Melody Rose, Josh Strobl, Victor Carrillo Tracey, Trevor Wayne.
Theater: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue).

The Greasers: Jason Schmidt, Renni Anthony Magee,
Daryl Tofa, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Sky Lakota-Lynch,
Joshua Boone, Brent Comer, and Brody Grant

Photo by Matthew Murphy
In his scathing review of The Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's best-selling novel, New York Times critic Vincent Canby described the movie as "a melodramatic kidfilm with the narrative complexity of 'The Three Bears' and a high body count," and likens it to West Side Story "with no dancing or singing." While not by any means West Side Story Jr., the new musical version of The Outsiders, which is infused with plenty of dancing and singing, at times seems to willfully double down on the correlations with its counterpart. The current show pales in comparison with its forebear, but the countless fans of the novel, as well as the countable fans of the movie, will find some nostalgic comfort revisiting familiar characters and scenes.

With a book by Adam Rapp and Justin Levine, the musical is generally very faithful to both Hinton's novel and Coppola's film. The rival gangs are differentiated by class (compared with the ethnic divisions of West Side Story) and include the snooty, rich Socs (pronounced "soashes," as in short for "Socials") and the scrappy, working-class Greasers. The primary focus is on Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant), a sensitive teen-age Greaser who also serves as the show's narrator. The burgeoning young writer lives with his older brothers, the compassionate Sodapop (Jason Schmidt) and the overburdened Darrel (Brent Comer), who has become the family caregiver and disciplinarian after the death of the boys' parents in a car accident less than a year before.

Ponyboy's best friend is Johnny Cade (Sky Lakota-Lynch), who has recently been a victim of the Socs' brutality, and the two friends are under the wing of hardened criminal Dallas Winston (Joshua Boone).

The worlds of the Socs and Greasers collide when Ponyboy strikes up a friendship with Cherry Valance (Emma Pittman), the girlfriend of the sadistic Soc ringleader Bob (Kevin William Paul). The first act ends with a murder, and the tensions rise to a climactic rumble in the second. Death and violence abound, but The Outsiders is imbued with hopefulness and redemption.

The musical, like its source material, ostensibly takes place in 1967, but except for some period costume references (designed by Sarafina Bush), the setting could be anytime, any city, USA. The score by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) combines elements of 1950s rockabilly, classic country, pop, and rap. The songs are pleasant, but do not make much of an impact because they lack the grit and propulsive sense of yearning befitting the characters and situations. Instead, the anodyne lyrics tend to express generic perspectives about home, family, and life not being like the movies. The exception is "Stay Gold," which draws on a line from a poem by Robert Frost (and is unrelated to the song of the same name that Stevie Wonder wrote for the film's end credits). It's a lovely ballad about friendship and holding onto one's youthful innocence. "Finding beauty in the fold," the song explains, is "the only way to keep from growing old," and implores, "My friend, stay gold."

The Socs: Barton Cowperthwaite, Dan Berry, RJ Higton,
Kevin William Paul, Emma Pittman, Melody Rose,
and Sean Harrison Jones

Photo by Matthew Murphy
As with the songs, Danya Taymor's often-stylized direction and especially Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman's athletic choreography unmoor the story from Tulsa in the late 1960s. "Friday at the Drive-In," which is comparable to Jerome Robbins's conception of "Dance at the Gym," incorporates jazz, 1940s swing, and 21st-century hip hop. Yet, unlike the movement in West Side Story, the rival groups are not delineated by different dance vocabularies that would heighten the class tensions.

The production also relies on flashy bits of stagecraft that produce some moments of awe but ultimately take away from the intimacy and power of the storytelling. For instance, there is a sensational fire scene (AMP, featuring Tatiana Kahvegian, designed the versatile set) that is more striking in its effect than it is dramatically harrowing. And the rumble, which is set amid torrential on-stage rain and lightning (enhanced by Brian MacDevitt's dazzling lighting), produces a similar impression. The rumblers, drenched and covered in mud, engage in a very physical combat. However, rather than using the choreography to build to a devastating climax (again, a la Robbins), the battle culminates in a series of mid-punch freezes followed by blackouts. The tableaux are akin to comic book panels and only seem to be missing the cartoonish sound effects of "Bam!," "Pow!," and "Wham!" At the end of the brawl as the winning side cheered its victory, I had to simply take their word for it since the staging didn't reflect a real contest.

The film is notable for its dreamy and mostly white cast (including C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, and more). The musical's casting, thankfully, is much more diverse (particularly among the Greasers; the Socs, not so much), and this provides more contemporary resonance.

Overall, the performers are uniformly quite strong. As Ponyboy, Grant brings a youthful rawness to the role (although some of his lyrics require some strain to comprehend), and he is paired nicely with Lakota-Lynch as Johnny. In addition, Boone persuasively conveys the troubled youth Dallas, whose internal rage is tempered by his paternal feelings for the bullied Greasers. As Cherry, Pittman is a standout. She sings beautifully, and she provides a sympathetic link between the warring factions.

As a middle school and high school English teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I often regarded "The Outsiders," which is not generally considered a great American novel, as a gateway work of literature. The reading curriculum back then included works almost solely by dead white men like Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, but Hinton, a woman who was nineteen years old at the time of publication, spurred some of the most reluctant readers on to immerse themselves in the world of young-adult fiction. Perhaps the musical, which will certainly have its share of detractors, might produce a similar effect, and inspire a generation of new theatregoers.