The Outsiders: A Visually Stunning Broadway Show with Lackluster Execution

NEW YORK — The big fight that takes place toward the end of the new show “The Outsiders” ranks as one of the most impactful (literally) moments of this, or any, Broadway season. And the director, Danya Taymor, pulls it off by gathering all the theatrical tools at her disposal, except for music — a daring choice for a musical.

Those familiar with S.E. Hinton’s novel “The Outsiders” or its movie adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola — and that’s a lot of people in this country — know that the story, set in 1967 Tulsa, revolves around two warring gangs, the Greasers and the Socs. In the show, their climactic, rain-soaked rumble is punctuated only by the thumps of fists and kicks viciously hitting their targets, by grunts of rage and groans of pain. Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman’s fight and movement choreography works in symbiosis with Brian MacDevitt’s stark lighting and Cody Spencer’s imaginative sound design.

Similar inventiveness is on display throughout, albeit on a smaller scale, as when a few tires and boards are enough to make us see characters jump aboard a freight train. The one major stumble is the burning of an abandoned church, a key scene that is baffling if you don’t know what’s meant to happen. (The scenic design is by the collective AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian.)

So yes, “The Outsiders” is compelling from a visual standpoint. It’s when the characters open their mouths that it falters.

Adapted by Adam Rapp (“The Sound Inside”) and Justin Levine (who also wrote the score with the folk-rock duo Jamestown Revival), the show’s book closely follows the novel’s framework. Center stage in both is the 14-year-old narrator, Ponyboy (an appropriately angsty Brody Grant), who has been living with his older brothers Sodapop (Jason Schmidt) and Darrel (Brent Comer) since their parents’ death.

The siblings are all Greasers, the chosen family of assorted misfits who proudly live on the wrong side of the tracks. Their enemies, the rich Socs (short for “socialites”), are blessed with “better clothes and better cars and better lives,” as Ponyboy explains in an introductory number, “Tulsa ’67,” that lays down the setting and the stakes in a clump of artless exposition.

And therein lies the problem: The show overexplains everything, all the time. Hinton knew exactly how much to say and when — the paperback edition of “The Outsiders” is just 180 concise, evocative pages that let us discover things along with Ponyboy. Here, both the book and the songs tend to underestimate the audience’s intelligence. (This is surprising coming from Rapp, who is usually not afraid of ambiguity.)

The novel’s Darrel, for example, is a distant cipher for most of the story, making Ponyboy’s realization of how much his brother loves him all the more poignant. Onstage, on the other hand, Darrel details the emotional weight he’s shouldering early on in “Runs in the Family,” one of the several “I want” numbers that dot the show — in case we don’t understand the first time, or the fifth, that underneath the bravado, these are sensitive kids, yearning for love and stability. Even “Queen of the Socs” Cherry (Emma Pittman) gets to share a bit of domestic turbulence.

The most troubled are Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch), a shy teen who is Ponyboy’s brother by bond, and the boys’ friend and protector Dallas (Joshua Boone). Originally an unpredictable loose cannon, Dally, as his friends call him, is now an honorable knight in black leather, whom Boone imbues with a warm voice and a steady gravitas. That character’s background and dreams have been developed in the show, perhaps in an attempt to make him, like Darrel, less opaque — as if theatergoers were assumed to lose interest when not hand-fed backstory.

But this backfires, lessening the suspense and tension in a tale in which violence is either central or humming in the background. Not that you would know it from a score overly reliant on samey folk-pop ballads that lack dramatic weight and can feel redundant. Immediately after Johnny kills a Soc (Kevin William Paul) in a strongly staged scene, for example, he and Ponyboy sing a song, “Run Run Brother,” that starts by rehashing what we have just seen, to much lesser effect. A musical where the sonic storytelling constantly pales next to the visual one has a bit of a problem on its hands.

“The Outsiders”, ongoing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including an intermission.

In today’s world, where innovations and new ideas are constantly emerging, “The Outsiders” offers a unique glimpse into the potential future trends of theater. The production’s use of theatrical tools, such as choreography, lighting, and sound design, showcases the power of visual storytelling in captivating an audience.

However, the show faces challenges in its execution. While it successfully delivers visually stunning moments, the dialogue and songs tend to overexplain the story, underestimating the audience’s intelligence. This discrepancy can hinder the overall impact of the production, diminishing the suspense and tension that should be integral to a story filled with violence and conflict.

As we analyze the implications of “The Outsiders” and its approach to storytelling, we can draw connections to current events and emerging trends in the industry. One key takeaway is the importance of striking the right balance between visual and sonic storytelling. In an age where audiences crave immersive experiences, it is crucial for productions to engage all the senses effectively.

Furthermore, the adaptation of source material, whether it be a novel or a movie, is a delicate process. “The Outsiders” demonstrates the challenge of translating a beloved story to the stage while maintaining its essence. As theater evolves, there is a need for innovative approaches that honor the core elements of a narrative while pushing boundaries and offering fresh perspectives.

Looking ahead, it is clear that theater will continue to evolve and adapt to the changing tastes and expectations of audiences. To thrive in this dynamic landscape, industry professionals should focus on enhancing the synergy between visual and sonic elements, finding creative ways to engage and challenge the audience’s intellect.

In conclusion, “The Outsiders” provides a visually compelling experience while highlighting the importance of finding the right balance in storytelling. By reflecting on its strengths and weaknesses, we can gain insights into the potential future trends of theater and the areas that require further exploration and innovation. As the industry continues to evolve, it is crucial for practitioners to embrace change, take risks, and keep pushing the boundaries of theatrical artistry. Only through constant growth and adaptation can theater truly thrive in the ever-changing entertainment landscape.

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