Review | ‘Outsiders’ gets lost in the rumble

01. The Outsiders – The Greasers – Photo by Matthew Murphy
The cast of “The Outsiders.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy

There is a great American musical about two rival teen gangs in a mid-century urban setting that features a big “rumble” fight, lots of switchblades, dance choreography, innocent romantic attraction between two members of the opposite groups, and the tragic death of the protagonist’s best friend. I am referring, of course, to “West Side Story.”

That being said, there is also a newer musical of lesser quality that otherwise shares these characteristics, namely “The Outsiders,” an adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 coming-of-age novel about rival gangs (the lower-class “Greasers” and the middle-class “Socs”) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was previously adapted into a successful 1983 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane.

The musical of “The Outsiders” arrives on Broadway in the midst of three other new musicals that are also based on well-known novels that previously received starry film adaptations, including “The Notebook,” “Water for Elephants” and “The Great Gatsby,” which may create the impression that it is yet another uninspired stage adaptation of preexisting IP fresh off the conveyor belt. But then again, this isn’t a jukebox musical or an adaptation of a TV show.

At its best, “The Outsiders”(which is directed by Danya Taymor, “Pass Over”) is fresh and rambunctious, with an attractive period country-pop score by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine (with plainspoken lyrics and pulsating music reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown), well-executed choreography by Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman (including both rock social dance and intense fight movement), and an industrial design scheme that is seamless and atmospheric.

However, the book (by playwright Adam Rapp and Levine), which stays dutifully true to the novel, has difficulty reconciling bursts of excitement with the plotting and character details of the novel, with Brody Grant (who looks far too mature to be playing the sensitive 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis) slowly narrating exposition to the audience and sentimental solos that stop the show in its tracks. By act two, the show felt like a mechanical procession of plot progression and teen melodrama.

The Outsiders” ends with a glint of hope (with Ponyboy handing what appears to be a copy of the original novel to a lucky audience member), but it is difficult to reconcile the overwhelming sadness expressed in the novel (as seen in a dead-end feeling of existence and multiple deaths) with the musical theater form. It can be done (see “West Side Story”) – but not everyone can do it so well.

For the record, exactly 25 years ago, I saw a theater camp production of a non-musical adaptation of “The Outsiders” in a black-box theater. With teens playing teens (including some who were even a bit younger than the characters), it had authenticity and vulnerability. That is the ideal way to stage “The Outsiders.”

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., outsidersmusical.com