‘The Outsiders’ Review: Growing Pains Both Brutal and Poetic

LA JOLLA, Calif. — No one sings during the rumble scene in “The Outsiders,” a new musical at La Jolla Playhouse adapted from S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel of teenage alienation and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film version. The nine-person orchestra — guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, some mournful strings — stays silent, too. Instead, young bodies, about 20 of them, supply their own percussive music, falling to the cork-covered floor, groaning into their mikes, as stage rain soaks them through.

This violence is for show, of course. Those kicks and punches don’t actually connect. But the brawl, at least at first, is not aestheticized. It’s a fistfight, not a dance — brutal, futile, wet, raw and sad.

“The Outsiders,” despite its considerable appeal, can’t yet bear too much reality. Awkward, yearning, fast on its feet, the show, like the adolescents it describes, is still trying on various identities. Directed by Danya Taymor from a book by Adam Rapp, with gorgeous, mournful music and lyrics from Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance, of Jamestown Revival, and Justin Levine, this La Jolla version (and I’m sentimental enough to hope that there will soon be other versions) is a musical with growing pains, currently serving too many characters, too many themes, too many styles. But when it reaches its full height, it might really be something to see.

Largely faithful to the book and for better or worse, to the film, which a New York Times critic once witheringly described as “a laughably earnest attempt to impose heroic attitudes on some nice, small characters,” the show is set in 1967 Tulsa, Okla. Amid an environment of vacant lots and broken-down cars (the set, inventive and peculiar, is by Amp featuring Tatiana Kahvegian), it maps the increasingly bloody conflict between the Greasers, the East side have-nots who inspire the title, and the Socs, short for “socialites,” the West side haves.

In the book and the movie, both gangs are white and all male. Here the Greasers have been effortlessly yet thoughtfully diversified. (Sarafina Bush’s vivid, considered costumes keep the gang distinctions clear.) There is at least one other significant departure, involving the death of a beloved character, but this, too, is purposeful and apt.

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The overarching concern of “The Outsiders” are the ways in which these teenagers, largely abandoned by their elders, misunderstand the world and one another. At the febrile center of the story is Ponyboy Curtis (played here by Brody Grant), an orphaned 14-year-old who lives with his older brothers, Sodapop (Jason Schmidt) and Darrel (Ryan Vasquez), both of whom have left school to support him.

A sweet kid with a poet’s soul, Ponyboy stays up late reading Charles Dickens and glories in sunsets. “Robert Frost is quite talented,” he tells Cherry Valance (Piper Patterson), the Soc goddess he meets at a drive-in. (Frost’s brief ode to youth and decay, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” runs through “The Outsiders” as a leitmotif.) But when a phalanx of drunken Socs attack him and his best friend, Johnny Cade (Sky Lakota-Lynch), Ponyboy finds himself enmeshed in the local violence.

From left, Ryan Vasquez, Brody Grant, Jason Schmidt and Daryl Tofa in the musical, directed by Danya Taymor.Credit…Rich Soublet II

The great allure of the book, and now the musical, are the big feelings that it illustrates and invites. Hinton wrote the book while still in high school and maybe because she was a woman (the S.E. stands for Susan Eloise), she articulated for her male characters rich and ardent emotional lives, which fuel the musical’s plaintive score. Though “The Outsiders” — in every form — argues that it is often easier to hate than to love and understand, it does not hesitate to show the passionate relationships (never erotic, but often with a force that borders the romantic) among the Greasers.

The show makes a few correctable missteps. An opening number, directly referencing the opening lines of the book and with projections by Tal Yarden, focuses on Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” an odd distraction (and a tenuous reference for the under-50 crowd) when we haven’t yet met the principal characters.

Only in the third number, “Grease Got a Hold on You,” does the story’s engine finally catch. (Given the preexistence of “Grease” and “Hairspray,” an alternate title for the show could have been “Pomade.”) There’s also an incidence of hand-holding, pushing a platonic friendship toward the romantic, that feels strained, especially given Hinton’s stalwart displacement of sexuality. A climactic scene involving a fire is not yet convincingly staged.

There are trickier hitches, too. This is Ponyboy’s story, yet he is hardly its most compelling character. And despite Grant’s earnest, lush-voiced performance, the eye moves inexorably toward other figures, like Vasquez’s Darrel and Patterson’s Cherry and Lakota-Lynch’s Johnny and especially Da’Von T. Moody’s Dallas, a muscled hood with a gangster’s pose and a big, wounded heart beneath it, who can twirl a baseball bat like a majorette’s baton.

Though Taymor, aided by the design team and the choreographers Rick and Jeff Kuperman, manages some striking and playful images, the relationship between the real and the symbolic remains uneasy. (Are we always in the vacant lot? Is this some junkyard passion play? Why is a car now vertical?) And “The Outsiders” sometimes throttles its own exuberance. Taymor (“Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” “Pass Over”) hasn’t yet worked out how to offer a work that feels dangerous and true without flattening the pleasures that a musical can provide.

If “The Outsiders” means to steer its muscle cars toward Broadway, which it should, further development will almost certainly smooth these variances in focus and approach. Even now, such discord has a way of receding when the youthful, gifted performers are freed to do what they do best: to move and to sing.

Musically, the score is polyglot, borrowing confidently from folk, bluegrass and rockabilly traditions, with occasional gestures toward soul and Broadway balladry. This is a story about conflict, internal and external, but it also allows, in songs such as “Great Expectations” and “Stay Gold,” for luxuriant and surprising concordance. For the hopeless, for the loveless, for the misunderstood, which is all of us, Greaser and Soc, young and old, “The Outsiders” offers the promise of harmony.

The Outsiders
Through April 2 at La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.; Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes.

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