True to both S.E. Hinton’s seminal 1967 novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s subsequent film, La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere of “The Outsiders” musical is drenched in emotion and physicality (in addition to rain on stage). Languid pacing, rich vocal deliveries and inventive fight choreography immerse the audience in the fraught lives of Tulsa, Oklahoma teenagers who strive to stay alive—and one who aspires to “stay gold.”
Music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival duo Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance, along with Justin Levine, add emotional nuance to Adam Rapp’s book, extrapolating from words and lines in Hinton’s novel. Though most of the characters are tough males who scuffle a lot, the songs delve deeply into their feelings, relaying the poignant story of orphaned teen Ponyboy Curtis—raised by his two older brothers and a gang of “Greasers”—and his best friend Johnny Cade.
As in the novel, 14-year-old Ponyboy (Brody Grant, understudied by Daniel Marconi and an excellent Trevor Wayne) narrates about navigating the world of Greasers and “Socs,” short for socialites—the richer kids in Tulsa with whom the Greasers compete for territory and sometimes girlfriends.
Epitomizing Soc evilness is Bob Sheldon (embodied by Kevin William Paul), who beats up Ponyboy and Johnny (a well-cast Sky Lakota-Lynch) with his posse any chance he gets, threatening to cut their “greasy” hair with a switchblade. Meanwhile, Ponyboy’s older brothers Darrel or “Darry” (Ryan Vasquez) and Sodapop (Jason Schmidt) are doing their best to raise the boy, still a minor, in the absence of their parents.
Each of the Greasers grapples with loss, making their stories compelling. Darry sings of giving up college dreams to feed his family, wash their dishes and fold their laundry like a mom; Sodapop is still lost and lovelorn after having fallen for a Soc girl whose family insists she abort their baby; and Johnny—the most heartbreaking case among them—is a neglected child in a home of substance abuse and violence.
Among them, too, is Dallas or “Dally” (Da’Von T. Moody), who has served time and adopts Ponyboy and Johnny as surrogate family, helping them escape when a skirmish with Bob and the Socs goes one step too far. We only know the extent of how much the boys mean to his shattered sense of self after Johnny is gravely injured saving children in a burning church and Dallas sings soulfully of his “little brother.”
Harmonic songs, with lyrics that play up characters’ emotions and music heavy on string instruments (guitars, violin, cello), resonate meaningfully throughout, allowing us to feel their sense of loss and hopelessness—but also their sweet love for each other, evoked further by the grins, hugs and other physical signs of affection, often with shirts off, strong yet vulnerable.
The set itself is dark and gritty (scenic design by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian), with sawdust on the floor illuminated by car headlights, a jungle gym, and wooden backboards that break to become drive-in benches and a hospital bed.
Music, lighting (Isabella Byrd) and choreography (Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman) meld powerfully in a climactic rumble-in-the-rain scene when the Socs and Greasers have it out in a “war” amid thunder, lightning and wet clothing.
Beautifully, the fighting soon becomes synchronized to the musical percussion to become an eternal dance, then turns cyclical, with bodies rolling in unison as they pummel one another, and finally each individual flinches as if simultaneously struck by invisible fists—everyone equally impacted the same way.
This evocative choreography aesthetically underscores a message championed by Bob’s erstwhile girlfriend Cherry (Piper Patterson)—now friends with Ponyboy—on how war has no winners and that the social division between the two groups is meaningless.
Whether or not that seed of progressiveness takes root and flourishes among Tulsa’s teen milieu (though there are signs of that), Ponyboy at least finds a way to move forward, writing in his notebook at the end as at the beginning, penning this story to a hopeful audience.
Directed by Danya Taymor at the pace of life, this production invites the audience to dwell in the musical's raw emotions rather than consume it in sound bites. Only the pivotal moment of Johnny saving the children is strangely sudden given its importance, happening in a relative blink and dramatized with only one child.
But otherwise, “The Outsiders” is a rich theatrical indulgence, a nostalgic view of American class culture that persists today and, above all, an enjoyable musical narrative grounded in the cast’s strong vocal talent—each of the leads owning their solos, aided by an invested ensemble. As Ponyboy recites from poet Robert Frost, “Nothing gold can stay,” so see it now before it’s gone.
“The Outsiders” continues at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla, CA, through April 9, with shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. For tickets and information, call the box office at (858) 550-1010 or visit LaJollaPlayhouse.org. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, with intermission. Masks are optional.