It’s a testament to the enduring power of “The Outsiders,” SE Hinton’s classic young adult novel, that my dreams began to parallel the characters’ nightmarish situation as soon as I began rereading the book. A respectable middle-aged man by day, I found myself out on the streets with my best friend from high school at bedtime, trying to survive a crisis that turned into an increasingly dire disaster.
Hinton’s story has the same dark charm that writer Bruno Bettelheim identified in fairy tales. The message of these works, according to Bettelheim, is “that the fight against the serious difficulties of life is inevitable, it is an intrinsic part of human existence, but if one does not shy away from, but rather firmly faces unexpected difficulties and often unfair, one overcomes all obstacles and in the end is victorious.”
“The Outsiders” adds to this time-tested recipe a note of utter realism. Hinton, surprisingly, wrote the book when he was in high school. The violence of adolescence is fresh to her, the wounds that occur do not magically heal, and when death comes, it is a permanent condition.
Adapting “The Outsiders” is no easy task, as Francis Ford Coppola discovered in his lifeless 1983 film, best remembered as a showcase for future Hollywood megastars like Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise. The film runs through the plot, as if victory lies in crossing the finish line.
But the force of the book is fictional, which means that it impresses us more through reflection than direct dramatization. The story is gripping, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the protagonist’s meditation on the events that keeps the jam-packed story from seeming clumsy and contrived.
The musical version of “The Outsiders,” having its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, acknowledges these dangers. The show, based on both Hinton’s novel and Coppola’s film, allows the music of the Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine to guide the narrative.
The score has a folk-rock sound that feels completely natural to the story without locking it into a specific period. Songs work best when they give expression to the inner lives of the central characters (although the soul-searching on the periphery could use some pruning).
The lyrics have a fresh charge but are sometimes overloaded with too much narrative work. When music is asked to shift production into high gear, the resulting reverie doesn’t always feel earned. But I appreciated the creative audacity of the composition.
The production, directed by Danya Taymor, is impressively original despite being uneven in places and incoherent in others. I was afraid that a commercial Broadway formula would be applied, but I came away excited by the artistic risk-taking. The show is an exciting mess.
The book is by Adam Rapp, a prolific playwright with a gritty, offbeat style. (I’m still waiting for someone in Los Angeles to do their fine piece “The Sound Inside.”) Rapp takes small but notable liberties with the novel, adding humanizing dimensions to some of the characters in an effort to be less sketchy. He’s not as tough as Hinton. Some mushiness creeps in, but the narrative outline is presented effectively.
Ponyboy Curtis, the 14-year-old protagonist and narrator who is being raised by his two older brothers after the death of his parents in a car accident, remains at the center of the story. But this coming-of-age story, set amid feuds between rival gangs, takes on the qualities of an unstoppable dream.
Street warfare between working-class Greasers and affluent Socs boils over to brutality in a surreal stagescape (designed by Amp with Tatiana Kahvegian) that evokes each setting from the rubble of an abandoned lot. Home, a drive-in movie theater, a dreary park, and a hospital room are delineated with the rearrangement of old tires, cinder blocks, and spare lumber.
The violence becomes real, even when stylized in the kinetic battle scene in the second act. Rick and Jeff Kuperman’s choreography becomes more ostentatiously muscular as bodies are pummeled in a storm that is both literal and metaphorical.
The musical pulls off the trick of keeping one foot in 1967 Tulsa and one foot in a neutral contemporary reality. The logic may have some holes in it, but I was able to suspend my disbelief, something I had trouble doing when watching the more straightforward movie.
The Greasers, the side Ponyboy was born on, are now racially diverse. Sensitive and bright, he refuses to internalize the label of “Tulsa trash” being thrown at him. Bad financial luck, however, has limited his options. He survives thanks to the protection of his fellow Greasers, his surrogate family.
In a stellar performance, Brody Grant plays the role of Ponyboy with grumpy rock star charisma. Vocally, he soars by communicating his character’s longings for him in song. The poignant opening number “Great Expectations,” inspired by the Charles Dickens novel Ponyboy is reading, seems to rise from the depths of his soul.
Lovingly following Ponyboy around town, Johnny is traumatized by both his violent upbringing in an alcoholic home and a recent beating he received from Socs that left his face scarred and his sense of security shattered. Sky Lakota-Lynch, peering from behind her character’s wounds, imbues Johnny with painfully tender silence.
When Johnny and Ponyboy go on the run after a member of the Socs is killed, they nearly merge into one entity. They don’t need many words to understand each other, but they offer company and comfort in song.
Da’Von T. Moody stars as Dallas, a gun-wielding troublemaker who becomes one of the musical’s tragic heroes. The more offensive qualities of him have been toned down and his caring and empathetic spirit has been amplified. He treats Ponyboy and Johnny like little brothers who need to be defended. He’s a softer version of the character, but Moody makes sure we never lose sight of Dallas’ deadly swagger.
Darrel, Ponyboy’s older brother who has sacrificed his own future to keep a roof over his little brother’s head, is now more of a father figure. Less captivated by his own muscles and less eager to fight, he’s a Greaser in name only. Ryan Vasquez underscores the seriousness of this renewed characterization but unleashes a tornado of emotion when he becomes song.
The Socs are portrayed as privileged, privileged savages. Bob (Kevin William Paul) dresses like a college boy and acts like a sociopath. His girlfriend, Cherry (Piper Patterson), who is portrayed in a more generous light than in the novel, knows how dangerous she can be after a few drinks. She looks past the dark side of her with disapproval. Over time, she begins to see that there is more to Greasers than just greasy hair and vile manners.
The musical spares no headbutting, but the cruelty is mostly on the surface, at least for the Greasers. Sodapop (Jason Schmidt), the handsome middle brother of the Curtis family, hugs Ponyboy at bedtime when his younger brother seems especially anxious. Johnny and Ponyboy are also unusually demonstrative physical. At one point I wondered if they were about to kiss.
Apparently, these gang members live in a masculine utopia, where no boy has to fear a homophobic slur. It’s an attractive sight, though it adds another touch of sentimentality to the show.
But “The Outsiders” intends to find redeeming value in characters who have been discarded by society. Ponyboy is haunted by the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Johnny urges him to “stay golden”, his words giving rise to one of the key songs of the second act of the production.
The musical, even at this somewhat wobbly preliminary stage, clings to the gold of Hinton’s novel, imperfectly but bravely transmuting it into hypnotic theater.
Where: La Jolla Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday to Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 2.
Tickets: Starts at $25
Information: LaJollaPlayhouse.org, (858) 550-1010
Execution time: 2 hours, 35 minutes