THE OUTSIDERS in California, A Gripping Adaptation — Review
Musical theatre adaptations are a dime a dozen nowadays. These shows have a built-in audience, beloved IP, and producers who don’t want to take a chance on a wholly new idea. With that, comes pressure. What will happen with these iconic characters from page and screen as they head to the stage? In this case, we just happen to be talking about the best-selling YA novel of all time—not to mention one of the most cherished films of the early ‘80s. Well, happy to report that The Outsiders shines through in a thrilling adaptation.
There is a reason S.E. Hinton’s coming-of-age story of 1960’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, is still taught in classrooms around America today. For the few who did not get a chance to read the story in school, we follow 14 year old Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant) who is part of a gang of Greasers, a ragtag group of boys from the poor part of town. On the other side of the city, we have the wealthy, college-bound Socs who run the West Side. After a fatal car accident, Ponyboy must now be raised by his two older brothers, Sodapop (Jason Schmidt) and Darrel (Ryan Vasquez). When Ponyboy’s best friend Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch) murders one of the Socs in a fight, the two must escape and find a way to fend on their own.
This story has been treasured ever since Hinton first published her novel back in 1967. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola directed his hit adaptation starring a crew of young actors on the scene including Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and many more. The musical has been deep in development for almost a decade with a smart book by Adam Rapp and music and lyrics by American folk duo Zach Chance and Jonathan Clay of Jamestown Revival as well as Broadway veteran Justin Levine. A world premiere was scheduled to play The Goodman in Chicago in 2020, but three years later it is finally on its feet with director Danya Taymor at the helm.
Taymor and crew have assembled perhaps the best-looking company of performers I have seen together on stage. Grant delivers a tender and heartfelt portrayal of Ponyboy, capturing the character’s vulnerability and pride. The devilishly handsome Schmidt as Sodapop is charismatic and sweet, and Vasquez is, dare I say, near-perfection as Darrel. Serving as Ponyboy and Sodapop’s ersatz parents, Vasquez holds his ground and his solo number “Runs in the Family” showcases his stellar vocal abilities. Lakota-Lynch brings a genuine naiveté in all the best ways to Johnny, unearthing hidden emotional beats that we don’t necessarily get in the novel. As for the rest of the cast, Taymor has taken an originally white male story and diversified it with actors of all races and gender identities, making The Outsiders even more accessible today.
Of course, the Riverdale-ification of the ensemble, where it is clear some of the company seem much closer to 30 than high schoolers, does provide a laugh and ultimately deters from the story at hand. When half the cast has their shirts off within the first two minutes of the show showing off their 8-packs, it seems a touch gratuitous, and a step beyond just boys being boys.
The scenic design by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian is an expansive urban playground covered in dirt that effortlessly transitions from one scene to the next. Paired with Isabella Byrd’s gritty lighting and Sarafina Bush’s suitable costuming, the world of ‘60s Tusla is vividly brought to life. Rick and Jeff Kuperman provide standout choreography, including a rumble with a visually stunning rain sequence late in Act II that will almost certainly take your breath away.
Rapp’s book stays true to its original source material, but soars when paired with the incredible score that Jamestown Revival and Levine have cooked up. From folksy blues to mid-century Americana with a dash of Broadway, the music is refreshing and lends itself naturally to the world of the Greasers and the Socs. A duet late in Act I between Ponyboy and Cherry (Piper Patterson), a Soc girl, “I Could Talk to You All Night,” is a tune that has not left my head and is certainly going to become a musical theatre staple. I wish we saw a bit more from Sodapop, the middle Curtis brother, who fades into the background with so much action happening around him.
Chatter on the rialto is already buzzing about whether we will see this adaptation hit the boards of Broadway. After this impressive stop in La Jolla, I am all but certain New York audiences will get to experience Hinton’s world live on stage soon. With a few tweaks here and there, the production is ready to move. Beyond that, my guess is it will become one of the most produced shows in schools across the country. Until then, “Stay Gold, Ponyboy.”
The Outsiders is now in performance at La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California through April 2, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit here.