The Greasers in La Jolla Playhouse's "The Outsiders" musical. Photo by Rich Soublet II
The poetry of Robert Frost I can see. But I never understood how Ponyboy Curtis, the tormented but cerebral teenage hero in S.E. Hinton’s ‘60s novel “The Outsiders,” drew inspiration from of all books Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” That was supposed to teach a restless, orphaned boy about survival in a world where he felt alienated and threatened?
In Adam Rapp’s stage book for La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Outsiders, A New Musical,” Ponyboy’s inspiration instead is Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” which is not only a more fitting text for the story but the source of one of this show’s best songs.
That’s just one upgrade to “The Outsiders” story.
This stage musical adaptation is an exciting, adult interpretation of Hinton’s novel. It’s a far superior telling of the tale of Ponyboy, Johnny Cade and their fellow Greasers to Francis Ford Coppola’s tepid and sentimental 1983 film, which will be most theatergoers’ reference point.
“The Outsiders” is one of the most promising world-premiere musicals to debut locally in some time. Danya Taymor directs a young and passionate cast. Music composed by the Texas duo Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) along with Justin Levine, the show’s arranger, is of the No Depression variety with a couple of rousers (such as “Run, Run Brother”) incorporated in just the right spots. The choreography by Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman is often spectacular, especially during a gang warfare sequence in the rain that is destined to be “The Outsiders’” onstage signature.
While the animus between the protagonist Greasers and the spoiled rich socials (called the Socs) isn’t apt to make anyone forget “West Side Story,” it does provide a basis of conflict from the outset. It’s into this arena of tension and aggression that 14-year-old Ponyboy (Brody Grant) and his best friend Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch) find themselves without particularly asking for trouble. A violent scuffle and a killing ensue, after which the shell-shocked boys flee in panic.
Their friend and mentor is Dallas Winston (Da’Von T. Moody), ex-con and veteran Greaser who’d be street-smart on any street in America, let alone one of Tulsa’s. Under his direction, the boys find a hideout far from town.
Ponyboy has left behind not only his presence during the killing, one committed by Johnny who was trying to save him from being Soc-drowned, but also the two older brothers (Ryan Vasquez and Jason Schmidt) who love him and comprise the rest of his orphaned family.
How the boys go from being the hunted to heroes (something that transpires with less than credible swiftness) and the price that they pay for that heroism defines a second act that is even more emotional than the first.
Conveying the depth of feeling that Ponyboy feels both for Johnny and for his brothers is central to bonding with “The Outsiders,” and young Grant makes that happen. The moving songs “Great Expectations” and “Throwing in the Towel” express beautifully Ponyboy’s struggle between hope and surrender. Lakota-Lynch, as the hard-luck Johnny, sweetly exhorts his friend to “Stay Gold.” When the song is reprised, it will be hard for audiences to stay dry-eyed.
Given the one-dimensionality of the Dallas played in Coppola’s film by Matt Dillon, there’s welcome depth and nuance to the iteration played by Moody. His ultimate fate is altered in this show from the novel and movie to one that feels uncharacteristic of the Dallas character, but there’s no questioning Moody’s fiercely felt performance or what we hear pouring out of him in the anguished “Little Brother” near show’s end.
The various Socs are narrative ciphers. The most significant among them is Cherry (Piper Patterson), whose gesture of friendship to Ponyboy precipitates the deadly ambush near the jungle gym in which her drunken Soc boyfriend Bob (Kevin William Paul) is stabbed. She’s still somewhat of a one-note character.
There’s no question that the plight of Ponyboy and Johnny propel “The Outsiders” toward its triumphs and tragedies. They are almost upstaged by that bare-fisted gang fight in the pouring rain, a feat of choreography like few I’ve seen. If the audience applauds when it’s over, you can’t blame them.
Technically speaking in this scene and in others, “The Outsiders” is impressive. The projection design by Tal Yarden recurringly transforms the Mandell Weiss Theatre into a Tulsa moviehouse screening Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke. The versatile set by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian brings the warring Greasers and Socs together in a junkyard flanked on one side by a shiny Corvette and on the other by a beat-up jalopy. Lighting by Isabella Byrd evokes the sense of alienation and foreboding.
The church fire that was so dramatically realized in Coppola’s film is underplayed to a fault in this show, and perhaps 10 minutes of exposition could be whittled from its first act, but “The Outsiders” could and should be headed one day for a Broadway premiere. It undoubtedly has great expectations.
“The Outsiders A New Musical” runs through April 9 at La Jolla Playhouse.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.