I’m not sure where to start with my review of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of “The Outsiders: A New Musical.”
Do I go down the bullet points of everything the creative and production team did right? Do I thank the musical-theater Gods that there is finally a new musical based on a book and film that is perfect in its execution? Or do I begin with how I can’t think about the show without tearing up? Because whether this is something for my therapist and I to figure out, we’ll see, but I honestly haven’t wept this much watching a show… ever.
And it wasn’t just because the music was absolutely gorgeous. It wasn’t just because of the intrinsically sad elements taken directly from S.E. Hinton’s novel. Those certainly had my tear ducts working overtime. But it went to something more profound. It was an appreciation at seeing a company of actors and an entire creative team works so empathically together that literal magic was being made on stage.
From the book by Adam Rapp (“Nocturne”) to the music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival and Justin Levine, to the choreography by Rick Kuperman & Jeff Kuperman, to the stunning scenic design by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian, and finally, the spectacular direction by Danya Taymor, this is a production firing on all of its beautiful poetic cylinders.
For those who have never read the novel (me being one) or seen Francis Ford Coppolla’s film adaptation (I just saw it a week ago), the story focuses on a group of teenagers in Tulsa, Oklahoma 1967. There are the Greasers – poor, slicked-back troublemakers whose existence will revolve around their small neighborhood forever. Then there are the Soc’s (pronounced Sosh’s), the wealthier, college-bound snobs that rule the school.
It’s a familiar story with the two groups eternally clashing, while members of each want to escape the expectations of their respective groups and carve out a different path for themselves. One of those is Ponyboy (Brody Grant), a thoughtful teen who loves being a “greaser” but also loves to read Charles Dickens and Robert Frost. He’s a sensitive kid dedicated to his friends and family but longs for more.
Since his parents were killed, Ponyboy is cared for by his eldest brother Darrel (Ryan Vasquez) and older brother Sodapop (Jason Schmidt). His best friend is Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch), whose parents are abusive to each other and him, so he spends most of his time with Ponyboy and the other members of the greaser tribe, including Dallas (Da’von T. Moody), the more loud-mouthed and troublesome of the older crew.
One night at the drive-in, Ponyboy and Johnny end up befriending two girls: Cherry (Piper Patterson) and her friend Marcia (Kiki Lemieux), who both happen to be Soc’s. When Cherry and Ponyboy seem to be developing a good connection, Cherry’s boyfriend, Bob (Kevin William Paul), becomes enraged and promises to get back at Ponyboy.
Eventually, tragedy strikes and Ponyboy and Johnny have to go on the run, causing Ponyboy’s brothers and the other greasers to re-evaluate their relationships with each other.
At first, “The Outsiders” might seem like a curious choice to adapt as a musical. It’s not overtly romantic like “West Side Story” or as over-the-top as “Grease,” instead being more male-centric and thoughtful in its ruminations on class and locale.
What Adam Rapp’s beautiful script does is narrows the focus to Ponyboy and Johnny’s dreams of something more (sang about stunningly in “Great Expectations”) and Ponyboy’s tense relationship with his older brother (brought to life with Darrel’s ballad “Runs in the Family”). While the relationship between all the friends is evident, this narrowing of the focal point gives the story an emotional weight that is inspired as it is heartbreaking.
While Rapp’s book is incredibly effective at this, the score by self-described “Southern Garfunkle” duo Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay & Zach Chance) and musical arranger Justin Levine use that southern grit to create soft, stunning melodies that carry these emotions to soaring heights. “Stay Gold” (sung by Johnny) will leave no eye dry.
This is also partly due to the incredible cast that director Danya Taymor (“Pass Over”) has assembled. There is not one character that doesn’t shine here. Some have showier moments, but they all excel in different and meaningful ways.
Brody Grant’s Ponyboy is sweet and reflective, and his voice has a stillness and power that seems to sonically paint golden sunsets of Oklahoma. Sky Lakota-Lynch plays the haunted Johnny as an abused puppy whose faithfulness to Ponyboy is moving.
Da’Von T. Moody’s Dallas is a bit more tender than the Matt Dillon badass we see in the classic film, but that allows his character more depth and sympathy. And Ryan Vasquez’s Darrel is the reluctant protector of his family, whose fidelity to them is heart-wrenching. His song “Little Brother” is one of the show’s many highlights.
All of this takes place on a set that, while most of it is stationary, morphs as the scenes change in really clever ways. For example, the front half of a car symbolizes the greaser’s park, a gas station, the home of Ponyboy and his brothers, the drive-in, and a bar. Each change is done with a simple alteration of props and lighting while continuing to inhabit the audience into a specific time and place.
The floor of the stage is covered in dirt that becomes part of the fabric of these characters’ lives, alternating between a parking lot to watch movies in, a personal refuge for more than one character, and a place to do battle.
The staging of some of this is courtesy of choreographers The Kuperman Brothers, who stage a few dance sequences and an absolutely stunning fight sequence in the rain. A lot of times, when you see musicals on stage, it feels like crowd control. Not here. The Kuperman guides their cast through routines that never feel forced or out of place. The movements always blend with the style and theme of the show without drawing attention to itself. It’s pretty spectacular.
Which leaves director Danya Taymor. Ms. Taymor guides her cast of characters with an assured hand, bringing them all to affecting and affirming life. This is a story that could have easily ended on a downbeat note. But the complexity of the characters and how Taymor handles their struggles realistically – in a commonly unrealistic medium – make them beautifully authentic and their circumstances surprisingly timely.
I can’t say enough how surprised I was by this show and how moved I was from beginning to end. There isn’t a false note on stage or behind the scenes. It is one of the most polished productions I’ve ever seen, and I still can’t think of a flaw.
If there is a “great expectation” at all, it will be that this production is given a direct ticket to Broadway. It is truly the Best American Musical I’ve seen in a decade.
And I can’t wait to see it again.
“The Outsiders: A New Musical” runs through April 2nd at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, CA.
For more info and tickets, visit LaJollaPlayhouse.com.