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‘The Outsiders’ Broadway review: Like many adaptations, it overexplains


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. outsidersmusical.com.



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