S.E. Hinton’s gang classic ‘The Outsiders’ doesn’t cut it as stage show

Like Jim Jacobs, who conjured up “Grease” from his 1950s experiences at Chicago’s Taft High School, S.E. Hinton penned “The Outsiders” from watching two rival gangs explode at her own Will Rogers School in Tulsa a decade or so later. A 16-year-old with a keen writer’s eye, Hinton saw the sympathetic, working-class Greasers at one table and the snarky, preppy “Socs” at another.

Her romantic, yearning novel, published in 1967, was an immediate national sensation: Hinton wasn’t just a leader in publishing’s Young Adult category, a case could be made that she built the entire genre while still in her teens.

A few years go by. Then a librarian and “Outsiders” fan randomly writes to Francis Ford Coppola and he ends up making a movie of “The Outsiders” with the improbable cast of Emilio Estevez, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane.  “The Outsiders” film, flawed as it was, thus became a kind of proto-Brat Pack experience.

Cherry & Ponyboy in "The Outsiders." (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
Cherry & Ponyboy in “The Outsiders.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

So no wonder the book finally has become a Broadway musical, which opened Thursday night with a book credited to both Adam Rapp and Justin Levine and with a fresh roots/country score by the Austin-based Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay & Zach Chance) and Levine, who (if that were not enough) also is orchestrator and musical director.

This new Broadway musical is not all I had hoped. The show loses its narrative thread in a second act where the requisite narrative tension dissipates instead of intensifying, and the show, which lacks the humor of the structurally similar “Newsies,” gets stuck in an overly introspective and melancholic loop. It’s understandable why — the source novel is proudly reflective and ruminative, but musicals invariably have to be fueled by action, emotional change and resolvable determination.

The resultant bottom line is that you are not led to feel enough for the three orphaned Curtis boys, all trying to survive here in the cruel world after losing their parents in a car crash. The oldest is Darrel (Brent Comer), the nice middle kid is Sodapop (Jason Schmidt), but the heart of Hinton’s story is Ponyboy (Brody Grant), a sensitive soul who incites the trouble with the Socs merely by wanting to watch a movie on the Socs’ side of town, the only place he can see Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.”

The rumble in "The Outsiders." (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The rumble in “The Outsiders.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

From there, Ponyboy makes the mistake of falling for Cherry (Emma Pittman), a Socs girl, with a nasty boyfriend named Bob (Kevin William Paul). Things devolve yet further, resulting in Ponyboy and his sweet friend Johnny Cade (Sky Lakota-Lynch) being set upon by the Socs and then killing one of them, meaning Ponyboy and Johnny have to flee for their lives, following the example of Dallas Winston (Joshua Boone), the toughest but most honorable Greaser of them all.

The score, which has the unity of an album rather than the diversity of an ideal theatrical score, has one truly beautiful number called “Great Expectations,” with notes that seem to come straight from the vocally excellent Comer’s gut. That song, with its Dickensian referent, sets up the central character’s hopes and dreams, but the show never again reaches those emotional heights, neither narratively or musically.

And whereas “West Side Story,” also the story of two warring teenage gangs, had nuanced Jets and Sharks, “The Outsiders” presents the Socs as cartoonishly villainous, giving the show’s constituent battles very little in the way of surprise.

"The Outsiders." (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
“The Outsiders.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

No one in this very committed cast is really credible as a teenager, which clearly was a conscious choice on the part of the director, Dana Taymor, but a questionable one that results in a feeling of remove from the story’s youthful milieu. The cast is talented and determined but strangely invulnerable, and the empathy deficit is made worse by a lot of imaginative staging in Act Two that creates all kinds of jumpy rhythms and lights-in-your-eyes confusion when we just want to better understand our new pal Ponyboy and feel that his spirit will come to thrive.

It also doesn’t help that the young guy’s love interest drops away from the narrative. All in all, and with all due respect to the many capable artists here and the fame of the book, the emotional landscape just has not been shaped to fit the needs of a Broadway musical. “The Outsiders” needed greater expansion of character, a gentler, simpler touch, a better sense of authentic teenage angst and a deeper focus on the heart.

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