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BWW Review: Prime Stage's THE OUTSIDERS Stays Golden at the New Hazlett

BWW Review: Prime Stage's THE OUTSIDERS Stays Golden at the New Hazlett

I have no strong association to The Outsiders as a novel or a film. I didn't have to read it in high school, and the movie didn't make the strongest of impressions on me; for whatever reason, my brother's nickname at high school was Ponyboy as some kind of sideways reference to some scene in the book, but it was never explained to me. But that doesn't matter- what matters is that to millions of people young and old, S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders is THE defining young adult novel, the one that kicked the entire genre into gear.

For years, people have asked me "Is there a musical of The Outsiders, or at least a play?" As I write this, plans are underway for the summer 2020 premiere of the long-awaited musical adaptation of the book, but a play exists, though it is rarely performed outside of the high school circuit. Adapted by Christopher Sergel, The Outsiders is not an entirely perfect play, but it preserves the flavor of Hinton's text and plainspoken characters, and comes alive in the moments when Sergel allows the play to be a play instead of an imitation of an Iconic Book. This is aided by Scott P. Calhoon's direction, which strips away much of Hinton's gritty realism, rooting the play instead in a magic-realist space where memory and reality bleed together.

The role of narrator goes (as in the novel) to Ponyboy, a fledgling juvenile delinquent with a poetic soul. Dominic Raymond fills the role of this lost young man with empathy and heart, though he is not always aided by the mound of expository narration- ripped straight from Hinton's prose- that Ponyboy must constantly unload on the audience. (This is a trait that the stage version of The Outsiders shares with Simon Levy's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which is also expected to premiere in a new musical version a few years from now.) Although Ponyboy is an enormous role, demanding in terms of physical exertion and sheer amount of stage time and dialogue, the showiest role goes to his best friend instead. Dakoda Hutton, as Johnny, disappears completely into the role of a young greaser with PTSD. His recurring scenes of physical and mental trauma and suffering are bracing and uncomfortable in just the right way, larger than life without ever sliding into camp as serious teen drama never should. Hutton's visceral performance is equal parts Tony and Maria in this West Side Story adjacent tale (don't tell me Hinton wasn't cribbing from Arthur Laurents at least a little). Speaking of West Side Story, Domenic Jungling elevates the minor role of kleptomaniac Two-Bit into a major player. Jungling's Two-Bit is a frenzy of barely-suppressed manic energy; in a perfect world, he'd be playing Riff in West Side Story instead of Two-Bit in The Outsiders.

This play would belong solidly to the boys if it were not for two extremely strong female performances. Cherry, the upper-class go-between spanning the worlds of the greasers and the Socs, is played by Carolyn Jerz, last seen at the New Hazlett as the leading lady/gentleman of Prime Stage's Twelfth Night. Jerz radiates the kind of intense, poised charisma we associate with old Hollywood, and she imbues the sensitive, ambivalent Cherry with so much depth that it's easy to forgive her frequently callous words and actions. Partnering with her in many scenes is Ariel Squire, who plays every other female role in the show. Squire provides most of the play's comic relief, moving between the roles of a giggly, innocent preppie, a greaser girl, a schoolteacher and an idealized dream version of a working-class mother. Director Calhoon wisely plays up Squire's moments of comedy; as interesting as characters like Hutton's Johnny and Jerz's Cherry can be, this would be a rather dour and bleak play without moments of goofiness here and there.

Surprisingly not providing comic relief is Nathaniel Yost, a BroadwayWorld nominee for best actor in the title role of last year's Bubble Boy. Yost plays all the adult men, and despite a resume packed with comic leads, he plays it relatively straight here... although Yost, a natural mimic, seems to have patterned the speech cadence of his doctor character around the instantly recognizable speech rhythms of late-era Robin Williams. Attention must also be paid to Lawrence Karl's Sodapop; Karl's knack for physicality gives electricity to the rather underwritten role of a young man stuck in the space between juvenile delinquency and adult responsibility.

While I may have some minor gripes about some of Hinton's clumsier prose, or about Cherry's slightly dubious moral equivocation in Act 2, none of that matters much. The Outsiders (as a book and as a closely-adapted play) is so many people's Very Favorite Thing, and Hinton was, famously, a teenage girl when she wrote this era-defining work. (I certainly didn't write anything that durable or valid when I was fifteen or sixteen... though some of my Rocky Horror Show callbacks from that era HAVE stuck around and are traditional parts of the show for a new generation of Rocky heads.) Scott P. Calhoon has staged this show with moments of nostalgic itch-scratching, like Two-Bit's iconic Mickey Mouse shirt from the film, but has managed to do what do what Christopher Sergel couldn't or wouldn't, and created a production that stands alone without affectionate memory of the novel or the movie. If you're the type of person who can overlook the unintentionally homoerotic camp humor of two gang-bangers reciting poetry and reading each other Gone with the Wind in an abandoned church (probably the biggest giveaway that S. E. Hinton was a teenage girl when she wrote the novel), then you, like Ponyboy, have successfully "stayed gold," and The Outsiders was made for you. But even a cynic like me can find moments of beauty and adrenaline and truth in Prime Stage's journey into the heart of darkness in midcentury Americana.


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