REVIEW: "THE OUTSIDERS" — La Jolla Playhouse
Updated: Mar 25
They grew up on the outside of society. They weren’t looking for a fight. They were looking to belong.
MARCH 5, 2023—LA JOLLA
To millions of people young and old, S. E. Hinton's “The Outsiders” is the defining young adult novel, the one that kicked the entire genre into gear. The novel became a bestseller, was made into a star-packed 1983 big-screen film (which turns 40 this year) by Francis Ford Coppola, and has been on middle and high school required reading lists for more than 50 years.
Susan E. Hinton was 15 years old when she started writing “The Outsiders” about two rival high school gangs: the poor but scrappy Greasers, considered from the “wrong side of the tracks,” which include Ponyboy and his two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop, pitted against the snappily-dressed Socs (an abbreviation of “socials”), who are entitled kids from the wealthier side of town. The gangs rumble over turf and girls and to let off steam, but one night a fight between Ponyboy, Johnny and the Socs ends with a fatal stabbing that changes the trajectory of everyone’s lives.
Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1967, where hardened hearts and pained souls struggle to survive and find purpose in a world that may never accept them, we find the hard-hitting story about a bond that three orphaned brothers share and the hopes they hold on to. This gripping new musical reinvigorates the timeless story of haves and have-nots, of protecting what's yours and fighting for what could be. Beyond the emotional impact, it’s an adventurous story, with heavy plot and action, and just as exciting and visceral as the book and the movie.
And now, after eight long years of development, spearheaded by the Araca Group (co-producers of “Wicked,” it’s finding new life as a stage musical at the La Jolla Playhouse. Decidedly, instead of hiring a Broadway songwriting team, Araca put out a call to bands that write music about the American heartland, finally settling on Jonathan Clay & Zach Chance of Jamestown Revival to write the musical ensemble. Because of the band’s unique blend of folk, southern rock and blues, with just a hint of bluegrass and church revival thrown in, the sound of the musical ultimately reflected an eclectic celebration of true Americana, acoustically driven, which also represented the truest expression of these characters' emotional lives.
This keenly anticipated world-premiere production (which has been set to run after previews from March 4th through April 9th) is thrillingly directed by Obie Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Danya Taymor from a libretto by Adam Rapp, with epochal songs by Jamestown Revival, and music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Justin Levine.
That combination of expertise preserves the flavor of Hinton's text and plainspoken characters, and comes alive, aided predominantly by Director Taymor’s exquisite oversight, retaining Hinton's gritty realism, and rooting the play in a magic-realist space where memory and reality bleed together.
The musical, accompanied by a nine-piece orchestra, feels quite a bit like one part “West Side Story,” one part “Hamilton,” and one part “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and one of the most iconic moments in “The Outsiders” you may ever see onstage is the heart-pounding rumble scene in the rain. Much of the story revolves around physical fight scenes, and in order to get it right for this production, the choreography has been created by brothers Rick and Jeff Kuperman, who are not only trained modern ballet dancers, but also black belts in karate and professional fight choreographers.
In this fast-moving coming-of-age story, Ponyboy Curtis is a smart but directionless 14-year-old, fighting to survive and find purpose and connection in a harsh world of poverty, class division, gangs, guns and pocket knives. We see the clash through the eyes of Ponyboy (the charismatic and engaging Brody Grant), who is open-minded enough to appreciate Robert Frost and “Gone with the Wind,” yet tough enough to stand up for his bullied buddies.
But although the engaging and charismatic Brody Grant’s Ponyboy is an enormously showy role in the musical, demanding in terms of physical exertion and sheer amount of stage time and dialogue, it’s equaled only by his best friend Johnny. Sky Lakota-Lynch, as Johnny, disappears completely into the role of a young Greaser with PTSD. His recurring scenes of physical and mental trauma and suffering are bracing and uncomfortable in just the right way, larger than life without ever sliding into camp, as serious teen drama never should.
Having lost both their mother and father, Ponyboy (who is open-minded enough to appreciate Robert Frost and “Gone with the Wind,” yet tough enough to stand up for his bullied buddies) and his older brothers, Sodapop (sensitively played by Jason Schmidt) and Darrel (Ryan Vasquez, solidly conveying the uneasiness of being forced to be an authority figure before being ready), make due for themselves and sometimes act as moral compasses for their troubled friends, such as the often-unstable Dallas (played with the right amount of jittery angst by Da’Von T. Moody) and Sky Lakota-Lynch’s achingly vulnerable Johnny.
It’s Johnny who inadvertently escalates the conflict between the Greasers and the Socs during a particularly tense night, leading to ferocious fighting and even a bit of espionage as the fiery Soc beauty Cherry Valence (the magnetic Piper Patterson, who brings a crackling edginess to the role) crosses class lines to give inside information to the Greasers.
While there are flashes of humor in Rapp’s script, he does not overload it with pop-culture references, cheap jokes or outdated slang. He sticks closely to Hinton’s plot, packing all the major events into a fascinating musical event.
Thanks to sincere performances, sharp staging and a swiftly-paced script full of poetic muscularity by Adam Rapp, La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Outsiders” brings the timeless themes in Hinton’s story to the forefront. It’s made abundantly clear that even though teenage terminology, fashions and attitudes change over the decades, there will always be cliques of privileged kids and social outcasts, hard-luck cases and wise-beyond-their-years dreamers whose differences will forever breed difficulties, prejudices, and even violence at times.
La Jolla, CA – La Jolla Playhouse presents the world-premiere production of “The Outsiders,” the new musical adapted from S.E. Hinton’s seminal novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s groundbreaking film. Featuring a book by Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp, music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay & Zach Chance) and Tony Award winner Justin Levine; music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Justin Levine, and choreography by Rick Kuperman & Jeff Kuperman. Directed by Obie Award winner Danya Taymor; AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian (Scenic Designer), Sarafina Bush (Costume Designer), Isabella Byrd (Lighting Designer), Justin Ellington (Sound Designer), Tal Yarden and Taylor Edelle Stuart (Projection Designers), Jeremy Chernick (Special Effects Designer), Nicholas Parrish (Wig Designer) and Tishonna Ferguson (Make-up Designer); Matt Hinkley (Music Director), Matt Stine (Music Producer), Ann James (Sensitivity Specialist), Gigi Buffington (Company Voice and Dialect), Liz Caplan (Vocal Supervisor), Tara Rubin Casting/Xavier Rubiano, CSA and Jacole Kitchen (Casting), Kristin Newhouse (Stage Manager), and Jenn Elyse Jacobs, Emily Searles, Kelly Martindale and Dean Remington (Assistant Stage Managers).
WITH: Brody Grant as “Ponyboy,” Sky Lakota-Lynch as “Johnny,” Daniel Marconi as “Randy,” Kevin William Paul as “Bob,” Brent Comer as “Paul,” Ryan Vasquez as “Darrel,” Da’Von T. Moody as “Dallas,” Jason Schmidt as “Sodapop,” Trevor McGhie as “Two-Bit,” Piper Patterson as “Cherry,” Kiki Lemieux as “Marcia;” Annelise Baker, Barton Cowperthwaite, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Sean H. Jones, L’ogan J’ones, Renni Magee, Melody Rose and Daryl Tofa, Jordan Chin, Milena J. Comeau and Tristan McIntyre; and understudies: Spencer McCabe Hunsicker, Junior Nyong’o and Trevor Wayne.
For tickets and information, please visit LaJollaPlayhouse.org.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: La Jolla Playhouse/Rich Soublet II