Reviews

The Outsiders ***

By: David Sheward

April11, 2024: In her classic YA novel The Outsiders, SE Hinton’s teenage protagonist Ponyboy Curtis explains the difference between “tough” and “tuff”: “Tough and tuff are two different words. Tough is the same as rough; tuff means cool, sharp— like a tuff-looking Mustang or a tuff record. In our neighborhood both are compliments.” In the new musical version of The Outsiders, now at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater after a run at the La Jolla Playhouse, the creative team is trying for “tuff,” but the results are “tough” as in “rough.”

THE GREASERS (Top Row) Jason Schmidt (Sodapop Curtis), Renni Anthony Magee (Steve), Daryl Tofa (Two-Bit), Tilly Evans-Krueger (Ace),Sky Lakota-Lynch (Johnny Cade), Joshua Boone (Dallas Winston), Brent Comer (Darrel Curtis); (Front Row) Brody Grant (Ponyboy Curtis). Credit: Mathew Murphy 2024

By: David Sheward

April11, 2024: In her classic YA novel The Outsiders, SE Hinton’s teenage protagonist Ponyboy Curtis explains the difference between “tough” and “tuff”: “Tough and tuff are two different words. Tough is the same as rough; tuff means cool, sharp— like a tuff-looking Mustang or a tuff record. In our neighborhood both are compliments.” In the new musical version of The Outsiders, now at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater after a run at the La Jolla Playhouse, the creative team is trying for “tuff,” but the results are “tough” as in “rough.”

Sky Lakota -Lynch (Johnny Cade) &  Joshua Boone (Dallas Winston). Credit Mathew Murphy  (2024)

The book by Adam Rapp and Justine Levine lacks the jagged edges of Hinton’s original and raw energy of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film version. There was also a short-lived Fox TV series. The basic plot is the same for all these iterations. Fourteen-year-old Ponyboy and his friends comprise a gang-cum-makeshift-family in 1967 Tulsa, Oklahoma. These broken-home kids pride themselves on being “Greasers” (so-called for wearing grease in their long hair), hovering on the edges of the law, and sticking up for each other when jumped by the predatory “Socs” or “Socials,” upper-middle-class teens from the other side of the tracks. The big trouble starts when Ponyboy is caught talking with Cherry Valance, a “Soc” girl who shares his appreciation for colorful sunsets. Their innocent encounter leads to a clash of the two gangs, more than one corpse, and a painful final reconciliation.

THE SOCS (Top Row) Barton Cowperthwaite (Brill), Dan Berry (Paul), RJ Higton(Chet), Kevin William Paul (Bob), Emma Pittman (Cherry Valance), Melody Rose (Beverly); (Front Row) Sean Harrison Jones (Tripp). Credit Mathew Murphy  (2024)

If this sounds an awful lot like West Side Story, you’re right, plus this stage musical has a bit of Rebel Without a Cause thrown in. Hinton’s novel is a finely-detailed character study of Ponyboy and his dysfunctional environment, beautifully written when the author was a teen herself. She studiously avoids comparisons to similar work by giving her characters such individual and unique voices. But try as they might, Rapp and Levine have veered to close to the West Side of legend, following a close trajectory and indulged too much sentimentality. There’s a fist-clashing, climactic rumble in the rain, just like in Ivo van Hove’s WSS staging. (The frenetic, exciting choreography is by brothers Rick and Jeff Kuperman.) The authors have even added a female sidekick-mascot to the Greasers, not unlike Anybodys in the legendary 1957 tuner, and to be 2024 inclusive, the Greasers are a racially diverse bunch. The Rebel Without a Cause parallel arrives in the person of Johnny Cade, who fills a similar function to the tragic Sal Mineo tag-along in the James Dean classic.

Despite these flaws, Outsiders does successfully tug at the heartstrings. I heard many sniffles from fellow audience members at the most heartbreaking moments. Also on the plus side, the score by the band Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Levine contains many endearing tunes with sweet pop and country influences. Danya Taymor’s direction is inventive, creating many imaginative cinematic effects with the aide of Brian MacDevitt’s versatile lighting. I loved the slow-motion action when Ponyboy is slapped for the first time by his otherwise caring older brother Darryl and when the young protagonist is held down in a pool by the vicious Socs. Hana S. Kim’s grainy projections help display the stymied dreams and conflicted emotions of the Greasers and Socs. The flexible set by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian also conveys the dry, dusty environment and the way it crushes ambition. In an ingenious move, a rusted old car serves as a bed and part of Ponyboy’s living room.

Emma Pittman (Cherry Valance) & Brody Grant (Ponyboy Curtis) Credit: Mathew Murphy 2024

The cast makes an effort not to fall into West Side stereotypes and mostly succeeds. As Ponyboy, Brody Grant makes an impressive Broadway debut. He captures the character’s aching loneliness and sensitivity and ably carries the show on his slender shoulders. One caveat though. Grant is convincing with his Southwestern accent, but mumbles when he sings so that the well-crafted lyrics, otherwise feelingly delivered, are not clearly discernible. I could only make out every third word. Emma Pittman invests Cherry with a steely spine. As Ponyboy’s protective siblings, Brent Comer and Jason Schmidt find the vulernable centers beneath their macho exteriors as does Joshua Boone as the most hard-bitten of the Greasers. Sky Lakota-Lynch is a tender Johnny. 

Though it veers too close to West Side Story and isn’t as authentic as its source novel, there are performances and staging to appreciate. It’s a show that feels too desperate to be liked and cried over to truly represent Hinton’s Outsiders.

The Outsiders ***
Opened April 11 for an open run. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 W. 45th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com.
Photography: Mathew Murphy  (2024)

Jason Schmidt (Sodapop Curtis) & Brody Grant (Ponyboy Curtis). Credit Mathew Murphy  (2024)