When you’re a Greaser, you’re a Greaser all the way.
It may not have the same ring to it as the iconic lyric I’m repurposing here, but it’s no doubt the credo for the characters in The Outsiders. Well, about half of them.
In West Side Story, for every Jet, there was a Shark. In The Outsiders, for every Greaser, there’s one or more Soc. It’s not enough for the Socs to be members of a higher social class than their Greaser counterparts. Often in their gang warfare, the preppy pastel-clad Socs physically outnumber the gritty denim-drenched Greasers, which leads to some decisive, if unfair, losses for our heroes.
Besides their names (Ponyboy, Sodapop, Two-Bit, Dallas, etc.), the young male members of the Greaser gang don’t sound like heroes on paper. That is unless you’ve read S.E. Hinton’s novel from which Francis Ford Coppola adapted the 1983 film and Christopher Sergel adapted this stage version, now being produced by Prime Stage Theatre. I haven’t and, before I sat down in the New Hazlett, conflated The Outsiders with similarly male-centric coming-of-age classics Stand By Me and The Lost Boys.
To me, at first glance, the Greasers seemed anything but heroic. They’re fighting with each other. Soon thereafter, they’re brawling with their enemies, with weapons ranging from fists to switchblades. We learn that some of them are high school dropouts. In a desperate moment, one of them becomes a murderer.
It’s due to a slew of rich, physically and emotionally raw performances from this steadfast ensemble that Hinton’s timeless characters are realized as the heroes, albeit tragic ones, that they’re meant to be.
Ponyboy (Dominic Raymond) doubles as our narrator and the play’s moral center. While infrequent, the narration grows tiresome fast as it not only tells instead of shows, it tells while simultaneously showing. Raymond also carries off the trite trope of book-to-stage adaptations where, usually at the top of the show and again at the end, a future version of the protagonist is seen writing the story we’re about to see.
It’s a symptom of Scott P. Calhoon’s serviceable direction that these moments so took me out of the production. Considerable stretches of the action were rendered listless by static staging and exceedingly dim lighting by J.R. Shaw. The effect was neither theatrical nor cinematic. While it was compelling to watch the relationships between the characters develop, the stakes repeatedly spiked and plateaued preventing the tone from ever varying.
As the youngest of the Greasers, Ponyboy has a unique dynamic with the rest of the gang. He’s doted on to varying degrees of overbearing excess by his brothers Sodapop (Lawrence Karl) and Darry (Michael Barnett). Dallas (Cole Vecchio) is a foil for Ponyboy, whose posturing bad behavior inadvertently connects him with a kind but sharp soc girl named Cherry (Carolyn Jerz). In a tender moment well played by Jerz, Cherry recognizes a beauty in Ponyboy, his tendency to recognize the beauty in the world despite the circumstances it’s dealt him.
Raymond not only lets us feel the tremendous expectations, societal pressure, and moral ambiguity weighing on Ponyboy, but with his warm and commanding stage presence, makes us want to lighten the load. Ponyboy’s heroism and Raymond’s daring performance is reflected in and amplifies the character’s undying loyalty to the people he loves and the innocent.
He may be Ponyboy’s best friend, but Dakoda Hutton’s Johnny is no sidekick. Hutton’s heartbreaking turn deftly steers the play through some of its more melodramatic turns. He affectingly portrays Johnny’s PTSD following a brutal attack from the socs. No matter what, we follow every bold choice that leads him to the point at which he utters this property’s most famous line.
An enormously likeable and charismatic Domenic Jungling brings some much needed lightness to the evening as Two-Bit, the proverbial Greaser with a heart of gold. In addition to Jerz, Noah Welter (Bob), Kyle DePasquale (Randy), and Ariel Squire (Marcia) all make us think twice before labeling the Socs as pure privileged villains.
Where Calhoon only fleetingly captures the energy of exuberant male adolescence, Fight Director Michael Petyak conducts it with electrifying results in a large-scale fight scene towards the end of Act II. Jerome Robbins choreography for the gangs in West Side Story was infused with elements of ballet, and Petyak’s movement here is equally dynamic and shockingly visceral.
Despite all that’s lost, the battle for territory and dominance between the Greasers and the Socs is fit to never end, only evolve with the times. The true identity of the outsiders namechecked in the title is similarly ambiguous. When it comes to the hearts of readers, moviegoers, and now especially Pittsburgh theater audiences, the winner is more clear-cut.
To misquote another musical, Greaser is the word.
Prime Stage Theatre’s The Outsiders plays at the New Hazlett Theater through March 15. For tickets and more information, click here.