‘The Outsiders’ Broadway Review: It Vastly Improves on Coppola’s Cult Classic

What begins as ‘Grease’ without the jokes ends up being a showcase for new, impressive stage talent

"The Outsiders" on Broadway
"The Outsiders" on Broadway

Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of S. E. Hinton’s novel “The Outsiders” wraps its greaser characters in such a golden glow of reverence that one fairly expects the screen to belch the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The 1983 movie is best known today for being one of those Brat Pack movies that starred the usual suspects of the genre: Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez and, in the lead role of Pony Boy, C. Thomas Howell, who delivers not James Dean but Brandon deWilde at his most virginal.

Coppola’s movie and Hinton’s novel are not great, or even decent, source material for a Broadway musical, but nonetheless, the show titled “The Outsiders” opened Thursday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Not the best thing you can say about the new musical is that every character has been better cast here than in the movie. While Dean and more often Paul Newman are mentioned in the book by Adam Rapp and Justin Levine, Brody Grant in the lead role of Pony Boy instead resembles a very young Mickey Rourke in “Body Heat.” Like Rourke in that film noir, Grant delivers a breakthrough performance in his Broadway debut and his many vocals consistently seduce and beguile. He’s one of the few Broadway performers who, when he sings, can twang as if someone didn’t need to teach him how.

Grant is well supported by Sky Lakota-Lynch, who offers a far tougher, less beatific Johnny Cade than Macchio does in the movie. When Macchio stabs one of the rich kids who’s drowning his best friend Pony Boy, Coppola nearly gives the kid a halo.

As Hinton liked to do with her post-young adult novels, she created love stories between male teenagers but knew to throw a female character into the mix. In “The Outsiders,” that beard is Cherry Valance, played by Diane Lane in the movie and Emma Pittman on stage. Cherry is no more needed than Natalie Wood is needed in “Rebel Without a Cause” when Dean and Sal Mineo look deep into each other’s eyes. Ditto for Pittman here.

That’s probably the weakest thing about the “Outsiders” musical. So many elements of this show, as well as the movie and the novel, appear borrowed. In addition to the “Rebel” triangle, there’s the rumble and the character Anybodys from “West Side Story.” That non-binary character is called Ace in “The Outsiders,” and is danced with amazing energy by Tilly Evans-Krueger.

In this musical’s opening moments, the whole conflict between the greasers and the socs turns “The Outsiders” into “Grease” without the jokes. Always cringe-worthy is the word “socs” (pronounced “sosh” and short for “socials”), which had to sound impossibly dated and clunky even in 1967, the year Hinton’s story takes place.

Grant’s edgy charm helps to prevent a complete mishap from taking place in act one. The actor is helped immensely by what he and others get to sing, which are first-rate folk and western songs by the Jamestown Revival, a.k.a. Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance, who are making their very significant Broadway debut as songwriters. They are joined by Broadway veteran Levine, who is also credited with “music supervision, orchestration and arrangements.” Levine has the good taste to keep the current trend of loud anthem-itis out of “The Outsiders,” which achieves its best musical moments by serving up several still, quiet and understated tunes.

It’s probably a mistake to give the musical’s lead Black character a song (“Grease Got a Hold”) about the joys of being a greaser. Then again, Joshua Boone could sing “I Feel Pretty” and make sense of it. This extremely charismatic performer takes over from Dillon in the movie to play Dallas, the hot-headed womanizer with a heart of gold — and Boone grounds and galvanizes every scene in which he appears. He has wisely been given the 11 o’clock number “Little Brother” and it’s difficult to say after just one hearing if it is the song itself or Boone’s powerful delivery that brings to mind the best of Marvin Gaye.

“The Outsiders” is director Danya Taymor’s sophomore effort (after “Pass Over”) on Broadway and her first musical assignment there. She is reason enough to see any play Off-Broadway; her taste in young playwrights is unerring. Here, Taymor brings a nice low-tech look to the show, aided by the “scenography” of AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian. In a musical about a bunch of rowdy teenagers, it’s right that a few wooden planks and some tractor tires function as an obstacle course that Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman’s kinetic choreography keeps throwing at the very expert and inexhaustible dance ensemble. These performers come through bruised but ultimately triumphant in face of all those deadening “socs” comments.

Taymor handles the rumble scene with a series of effective slow-motion tableaux, separated by Brian MacDevitt’s blazing shots of lighting followed by a total blackout. For those of us who grew up on “West Side Story,” it may seem a little odd to hear the audience burst into applause when the greasers beat the crap out of the socs. It’s an insensitive reaction, and it’s unfortunate that the makers of “The Outsiders” have decided to provoke such a brutish reaction in their audience. Then again, maybe I wasn’t the only one who never wanted to hear the word “socs” again.


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