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April 23, 2024
Teen Classic Reaches the Stage
The Outsiders

Years ago, I taught the book The Outsiders to classes of teenagers. My students were intrigued by the two warring gangs separated by economic circumstances: the Socs, wealthy kids in madras and khakis who had it all versus the Greasers with their hair slicked down, from the poor side of town.

It was 1967 and the Greasers were locked into their Tulsa town with little money and little chance of ever getting out. Despite the place and the time, my students identified with the problems of school cliques, money issues, and family tensions. Whether it was Oklahoma or New York, the issues were universal.

The musical version, directed by Danya Taymor, includes 1960’s references but it makes little difference to the audience. Judging from its reaction, I assume that many in the theater were already familiar with the story, probably from the Francis Ford Copolla’s movie. Although the script by Adam Rapp is true to Hinton’s book and the movie, it lags at times.

Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant,) the 14 year old narrator of the story, loves the movies which allow him to escape his life. His parents both died in a car accident and his eldest brother Darrel ( Brent Comer in excellent voice) has given up his dreams to care for his two younger brothers. He is frustrated by his life doubling as brother-father, and Ponyboy chafes at his parenting. Young viewers can easily identify with his struggle against the authority figure. Sodapop, the middle brother, always smiling (Jason Schmidt) is more the brawn than the brains of the family.

Another one of the Greasers, Johnny Cade (Sky Lakota-Lynch) is a gentle boy who was beaten by the Socs before the story opens. This foreshadows action later in the play.

Although from different sides of town, Ponyboy and Cherry (Emma Pittman,) meet at the movies and find they can openly talk to one another. She suggests that the Socs don't have it as good as it seems. With a roving father and a depressed mother, she feels pressure to excel. Yet it’s hard to compare her situation to Johnny's home life when his parents are arguing loudly, and he tells Dallas (talented Joshua Boone) that he thinks his dad will kill his mom one day.

The cast is good with several making their Broadway debuts in the show, after having originated the roles in La Jolla Playhouse. Although Grant does a fine job, I wondered how it would have played with actual younger performers.

The music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine have a definite country feel. The songs further the narrative and tell much of the story as Ponyboy sets the scene and gives background. Yet a few of the songs like “Great Expectations” are lovely ballads. The final song, “Stay Gold,” a reference to the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” will remain in your mind long after you’ve left the theater.

The staging is creative, rearranging tires, jungle-gym scaffolding and planks of wood. The half-car onstage later becomes the bed Sodapop and Ponyboy share. (Scenography by AMP feat. Tatiana Kahvegian.)

Comparisons to “West Side Story” are inevitable as the two groups of boys clash and fight. Hinton even called it a rumble and after tragedy befalls both sides, the two groups meet to set rules. The winner ‘gets’ the park. It seems likely that a young Hinton saw the 1961 movie version of West Side Story. The dancing (Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman) is terrific and the rumble especially inventive. The dance is punctuated by percussion as pairs of fighters roll about underneath the pouring rain and thunder. It's a creative slow motion ballet of blood and mud as they mix it up.

The show, though well-done, is not appropriate for pre-teens. There’s a lot of smoking, fighting and death. The violence is done tastefully but is still troubling. Ironically, smoking leads to greater tragedy when a tossed cigarette causes a fire in a church. Johnny and Ponyboy become heroes, rescuing small children from the fire, but Johnny is struck by a beam. We see the fire but learn of the boys’ exploits when it becomes front page news.

The show has youth appeal, especially highlighting the confusions and pressures of being young and the audience whooped and cheered. “The Outsiders” ends as so many stories do with the story being written by the narrator. (Remember the author was only 16.) Years ago, my students were astonished to learn that the book was written by S.E. Hinton, a 16 year old girl, and inspired by two gangs in high school. The 1967 book continues to be a best seller and taught in schools throughout the country. Made into a movie in 1983 directed with Francis Ford Coppola, “The Outsiders:A New Musical” still feels relevant and will touch audiences as it did my students.

Jacobs Theatre
242 W 45th St
New York, NY 10036

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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