Brilliant La Jolla Playhouse Iteration of Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’ Elevates the Classic Story
By Cassiopeia Guthrie, March 6, 2023
Fans of the S.E. Hinton’s coming of age novel The Outsiders will want to be sure to catch the newest retelling of this story. Running February 19 through April 2 at the La Jolla Playhouse Weiss Theatre, this world premiere musical is a breathtaking tale of injustice, right and wrong, and navigating the trials of youth.
With music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine, book by Adam Rapp, and direction by Danya Taymor, The Outsiders follows two weeks in the life of 14-year old Ponyboy Curtis, a boy growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ponyboy, having lost his mother and father, lives with his older brothers, Darrel and Sodapop, on the east side of town, where they - and their fellow Greasers (including Dally, Johnny, Paul, and Two-Bit) - struggle to make ends meet and to maintain dignity. In the meantime, the wealthy west side Socs (for Socialites) spend their days and nights spending money, partying, and looking down upon their financially disadvantaged classmates.
The novel The Outsiders, which was written by Hinton when she herself was a teenager, is regularly read in schools and enjoyed a well-beloved film adaptation in the 80s. This production remains faithful to much of the original text and incorporates the famous rain scene rumble from the film version, but the theatrical elevation really works here. The stage production is exquisite, featuring elements so well designed and executed that it is hard to believe that this is the show’s first iteration. The cast has been given an elaborate playground on which to create and carte blanche to elevate the story through song and dance. And sing and dance they do.
Brody Grant as Ponyboy and Ryan Vasquez as Darrel are vocal powerhouses, each of whom earned multiple spontaneous eruptions of applause during their solo pieces at the opening night production. Grant has a gorgeous ease to his vocal work, elegantly caressing each note and phrase and coaxing the words to life, and his skill as an actor is on display throughout, but especially captivating in his hopeful “Great Expectations” and childlike grief in “Stay Gold Reprise.” Vasquez, on the other hand, has a huge stage presence and a resonant voice that fills each nook and cranny of the theatre. His “Runs is the Family” and “Throwing in the Towel” manage to be both powerful and vulnerable at the same time, a testament to his skill as a performer.
And while these two actors lead some of the most emotionally effective numbers of the show, the vocal score effectively highlights the performers onstage, with bright spots written in to feature Sky Lakota-Lynch as Johnny, Kyle William Paul as Bob, Daniel Marconi as Randy, Brent Comer as Paul, Da’Von T. Moody as Dallas, Jason Schmidt as Sodapop, Trevor McGhie as Two-Bit, Piper Patterson as Cherry, Kiki Lemieux as Marcia, and a solid ensemble which includes Annelise Baker, Barton Cowperthwaite, Tilly Evans-Krueger, L’ogan J’ones, Sean Harrison Jones, Renni Magee, Melody Rose, and Daryl Tofa.
This ensemble also shines in that it is comprised of wildly talented dancers, whose work is unleashed with unbridled physicality by choreographers Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman. Their use of intimate lifts, ongoing and stellar fight choreography, and a continued balance of movement across the stage at all times speaks to the choreographers’ attention to detail, the work of the sensitivity specialist (Ann James), and the skill of the performers. Dance standouts include Evans-Krueger (also one of the associate choreographers and dance captains of the show), McGee, and Tofa.
Another highlight of this production is the way that the various elements come together, in particular the outrageously versatile and textural scenic design (AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian), lighting design (Isabella Byrd), sound design (Justin Ellington), projection design (Tal Yarden), and special effects design (Jeremy Chernick). One special moment in particular where this is on display is the infamous rumble scene. Combining blood work, light, water, and perfectly performed dance execution is no easy feat, but the scene ramps up and ultimately is carried out beautifully, framed between playground equipment and an old clunker. Other scenes that are visually stunning are the dark and moody “Run Run Brother” which features brilliant use of the set components (tires, boards, car, and more) to transition the scene from a near-drowning and death to Ponyboy and Johnny’s journey to find safety, and ”Death’s at My Door,” which is staged in a suspended church attic and which uses broken glass and wooden beams to leverage light, dark, and reflection.
Any new show in development will have some pieces that are still finding their groove. This production felt polished and the Greasers were well developed and interesting, but the Socs lack character development aside from being portrayed as bullies, which I feel would have made the climax more engaging. Likewise, there are a couple of songs that, despite being well performed, lack the gravitas that their placement in the show warrants, including “Hopeless War” and “Little Brother.“
That said, the lyrics, technical elements, and performances throughout are beautiful and poignant. “If you’re not born into money, you’re born into despair,” we hear, and The Outsiders illuminates this classic tale and timeless truth through a new lens in a way that is sure to resonate with audiences and that will doubtless continue to captivate.
I look forward to seeing the future that The Outsiders is sure to have. In the meantime, the production runs at the La Jolla Playhouse Weiss Theatre Stage through April 2.