“The Outsiders ”review: S.E. Hinton's beloved novel transforms into glittering Broadway musical

Brody Grant and Sky Lakota-Lynch star as Ponyboy Curtis and Johnny Cade, two Greaser kids who find themselves flung headfirst down a dangerous path.

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater following a performance of The Outsiders, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and the unique challenges of bringing a treasured text to Broadway.

After all, author S.E. Hinton’s timeless coming-of-age tale starring Ponyboy Curtis and his ragtag Greaser family has been entrancing audiences for generations now: first as a 1967 novel that remains seminal reading for middle schoolers across the U.S. to this day, and again in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation starring C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Patrick Swayze. Now, The Outsiders has been crafted into a glittering musical that might not hit as hard as its predecessors, but still has the power to inspire an entire generation of young theatergoers just the same.

The production, which opened on Thursday evening, was adapted for the stage by book writers Adam Rapp and Justin Levine and produced in part by Angelina Jolie. Set in 1967 Tulsa, The Outsiders chronicles the story of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant) and his best friend Johnny Cade (Sky Lakota-Lynch) as they attempt to establish themselves and their place in the world amid soul-crushing poverty, contentious family dynamics, and an increasingly violent class war between their Greaser brothers and the rich Socials (Socs for short).

<p>Matthew Murphy</p> The Greasers in 'The Outsiders'

Matthew Murphy

The Greasers in 'The Outsiders'

Everything changes when Ponyboy meets Cherry Valance (Emma Pittman) and discovers that the Socs feel just as stifled by their living circumstances as the Greasers. However, the pair’s heart-to-heart unintentionally sets off a chain of events that sends Ponyboy and Johnny careening down a dangerous new path.

As the young dreamer Ponyboy, Grant delivers a star-making performance in his Broadway debut. From the moment that he appears onstage scribbling away in his notebook, it’s clear that Grant sees the character for what he truly is: a wide-eyed kid, burdened by familial and societal expectations, who longs for something more. In turn, he plays Ponyboy with a softness and affability that is hard not to root for — especially when he’s frequently breaking the fourth wall to talk about the show’s latest developments, or popping down into the front row to watch a movie. His gentle camaraderie with Lakota-Lynch's complex Johnny is also incredibly sweet — and sounds even sweeter when they harmonize with one another on tracks like the poignant "Stay Gold."

The pair’s onstage family is rounded out with stellar performances by Jason Schmidt and Brent Comer as Ponyboy’s brothers Sodapop and Darrel “Darry” Curtis, Daryl Tofa as Two-Bit, and the absolute scene stealer that is Joshua Boone as Dallas “Dally” Winston. He expertly brings a hardened, protective edge to Dally — a nomad who’s well aware of just how cruel the world can be — that melts away the instant his younger brothers need him. And that’s not even mentioning Boone’s effortlessly smooth voice, which he uses to absolutely bring down the house in not one, but two of the greatest songs of the show: the similarly titled “Run, Run Brother” and “Little Brother.”

<p>Matthew Murphy</p> Sky Lakota-Lynch as Johnny Cade and Joshua Boone as Dallas Winston in 'The Outsiders'

Matthew Murphy

Sky Lakota-Lynch as Johnny Cade and Joshua Boone as Dallas Winston in 'The Outsiders'

Unfortunately, the rest of the musical’s songs — which were penned by folk duo Jamestown Revival, with contributions from Levine — pale in comparison to the aforementioned tracks. While its score is sonically in line with the production’s time period with its eclectic blend of upbeat rockabilly, country, and folk Americana tunes (and certainly sounds great thanks to the cast’s expert crooning and nine-piece accompanying band), Jamestown Revival’s ambiguous lyrics often struggle to tap into the heavy emotions that are playing out onstage.

At one point, Cherry sings that the “hopeless war” between Greasers and Socs “is hopeless,” which leaves more to be desired from a musical that aims to give its emotionally repressed characters an outlet through song. Other numbers threw off the production’s pacing or felt strangely jarring, like having the Greasers perform the upbeat “Hoods Turned Heroes” just seconds before throwing theatergoers into a particularly painful scene. However, there are enough dazzling moments when Jamestown Revival’s music truly does sing (like Ponyboy’s anthem “Great Expectations”) that leave one wishing they’d leaned into The Outsiders’ darkness, fire, and fear just a little bit more.

But, where music fails, brilliant staging speaks. With every beating that Ponyboy takes — and, dang, does that poor boy take a walloping during the musical’s two hour runtime — sound and lighting designers Cody Spencer and Brian MacDevitt, respectively, ensure that theatergoers feel each and every punch through loud, ear-ringing white noise and blinding flashes of light. Meanwhile, director Danya Taymor keeps Ponyboy and his pals moving at a swift gallop onstage, pausing only for a few slow motion fight sequences that were choreographed by brothers Rick and Jeff Kuperman. The musical’s biggest brawl, the rain-soaked Rumble, is some of the most captivating stage fighting currently on Broadway — and led to a surprising amount of fake blood being spilled upon its graveled stage.

<p>Matthew Murphy</p> Emma Pittman as Cherry Valance and Brody Grant as Ponyboy Curtis in 'The Outsiders'

Matthew Murphy

Emma Pittman as Cherry Valance and Brody Grant as Ponyboy Curtis in 'The Outsiders'

However, it’s also worth noting that The Outsiders takes some creative liberties in order to tie up any loose ends during its second act. Without giving too much away, the decisions range from omitting certain characters to much larger contextual changes to its story, which fans of the novel or film may find disappointing.

For many, The Outsiders is a story that not only remains as raw and relatable as when they first read it, but also pushed the very boundaries of young adult fiction with its insightful ruminations on brotherhood, identity, and the cycles of grief and violence. While its musical adaptation may have its squabbles, its heart of gold still remains firmly intact. Grade: B

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