Thursday, May 16, 2024

REVIEW: The Outsiders

Review of the Saturday, May 11, 2024 matinee performance at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City. Starring Brody Grant, Sky Lakota-Lynch, Joshua Boone, Brent Comer, Dan Berry, Emma Pittman, Daryl Tofa, Kevin William Paul and Victor Carrillo Tracey. Music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival and Justin Levine. Book by Adam Rapp and Victor Carillo Tracey. Based on the novel by S.E. Hinton and the motion picture by Francis Ford Coppola. Scenography by AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Cody Spencer. Projection design by Hana Kim. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick and Lillis Meeh. Choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman. Direction by Danya Taymor. 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

I have to admit that I went into the Jacobs Theatre with a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement because I would be seeing one of my all-time favorite books come to life in my all-time favorite medium; dread because I would be seeing one of my all-time favorite novels come to life in my all-time favorite mediums. Great expectations can lead to big disappointments - I have had that happen enough times that the dread has become a muscle memory. But my dread went away the minute Brody Grant began speaking the famous first line of S.E. Hinton's classic young adult novel, The Outsiders. At once I was brought back to my own turbulent teen years - angst filled and feeling alone and misunderstood. The story of the Greasers struggling to keep their place in a world totally against them was coming to life in front of me, and I was transported. Now, as a musical, this story is not only loyal to its origins, but has been thrillingly expanded into a tale of family (blood and chosen), loyalty, and growing up. Lest you think this is a family-friendly romp, don't be fooled. This is epic drama, violent, gut-wrenching and sobering. 

There is a youthful, no holds barred feeling that pervades this production far beyond the story itself. From top to bottom, onstage and off, the cast and creative team is largely made up of artists making their Broadway debuts or their Broadway musical debuts, peppered with some that have recent experience on the Main Stem. That thrill of newness is in the air from curtain to curtain. 

Under the carefully focused and alternately cinematic direction of Danya Taymor, the show simmers until it boils over into physically epic moments of theatricality that film simply cannot capture; so, too, are the emotional highs and lows, which are both broadly presented and profoundly intimate. The raw, combative hyper-physicality of the Taymor's staging and choreography of Rick and Jeff Kuperman are never less than riveting, and brilliant.

The creative team is fully on board using their elements to supplement and unify this unique vision of the beloved novel. The lighting, sets, costumes and effects (sound and visual) work together to extend the themes in singularly theatrical ways. The moody ebb and flow of Brian MacDevitt's lighting and Hana Kim's projections guide where to look and how to feel in truly exciting ways. In a piece about class - the haves and have nots - Sarafina Bush's costumes easily identify who's who. The special effects are elemental - including rain and a building fire - by Jeremy Chernick and Lillis Meeh - and further the aesthetic impact for audiences. All of this is creatively encapsulated on AMP's "scenography" (featuring Tatiana Kahvegian), an ever evolving, rarely still unit set, supplemented with cars (!), a flexible flooring surface, and various levels of playing space. At first blush, it seems as bland as Midwestern Oklahoma, but time after time, the fully integrated staging of creating different scenes with the lift of a car hood, rearrangement of planks, tires and cinder blocks is a breathtaking visual feast.

As wondrous as all of that is, the emotional work done by Adam Rapp and Justin Levine's sometimes spare, sometimes funny, always poetic book not only does Hinton's novel great service, but smartly expands the story to include multiple viewpoints and a deeper dive into the feelings and motives of the central family. You come away from the musical knowing much more about everyone than either the book or the beloved film. Levine is also instrumental in the shaping of the score, working with Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) to create a 60s-ish sounding score of country style and Broadway mash ups. The solid score ranges from exciting group numbers ("Grease Got a Hold," "Friday at the Drive-In"), to character solos ("Runs in the Family," "Soda's Letter") and power ballads and duets ("I Could Talk to You All Night," "Hopeless War," "Stay Gold"). And the scoring for the rumble is as epic as the scene itself.

The youthful exuberance of the cast is fascinating and infectious. As a group, the Socs (the haves) are presented largely as a unified, entitled gang, literally moving in unison and almost always in some sort of offensive formation. That is not to say, however, that each one hasn't created unique characters. They have. Featured leader Bob, as played by Kevin William Paul, is despicable in his arrogance, prejudices and womanizing ways. Mr. Paul still makes the character compelling and always interesting. His girl (and eventual Greaser ally), Cherry, is portrayed with a perfect mix of flirtation and sweet earnestness by Emma Pittman.

The Greasers (the have nots) are a larger part of the story, and so we are naturally given more about them to understand. For the musical, a female gang member, Ace (Tilly Evans-Krueger), an Anybodys type, if you will, has been added, and she is terrific, probably the ensemblist of the entire season. Two-Bit (Daryl Tofa) is playfully athletic. But it is gang leader, Dallas, that stands out under the imposing figure and demeanor of Tony nominee Joshua Boone, who skillfully maneuvers his character through a seesaw of menace and vulnerability. His final moments - including the stirring anthem "Little Brother" - are gut-wrenching. I look forward to seeing much more of him in the future.

Within the Greaser gang is a family - the Curtis brothers - closer due to a tragedy that has left them orphaned to fend for themselves. As such, the eldest, Darryl, has become an ill-prepared father figure. His pain, self-doubt and abject fear are palpable in the stoic hands of Brent Comer, who sings and acts with a passion. Sodapop, the outwardly carefree, silly brother (played at our performance by Dan Berry, an excellent singer and charismatic presence) offers moments of cathartic levity and sweet moments as the story dictates. Their youngest brother, the bookish Ponyboy and his best friend, Johnny Cade, are the center of the novel, film, and musical.

Diminutive and scared by his own shadow, Johnny is sweetly rendered by Tony-nominee Sky Lakota-Lynch in a performance that you can't keep your eyes off of. Full of ticks and a small voice, it is the way he portrays the inner strength of the character that fully endears. Brody Grant, as Ponyboy, has really earned his Tony nod in a mammoth role that is acutely emotional, astoundingly physical and vocally demanding. You never doubt any aspect of his performance including his angst and ambivalence as a young teen, the crushing weight of a difficult life, and his desire to leave it all behind by escaping to the movies or in the pages of his beloved Great Expectations. Mr. Grant is a natural with immense prospects; the theater world and more are his for the taking. Great expectations, indeed.

In a season full of possibilities, The Outsiders joins a list of shows rising like cream to the top. There are no weak elements here. This one is the real deal, destined to become a classic, just like its source.

📸: M. Murphy

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