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“The Outsiders” reviewed

Watching the new Broadway musical The Outsiders, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen it all before. It’s not just because of the source material, including both S.E. Hinton’s classic YA novel and Francis Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation featuring a slew of young Hollywood hunks. It’s also because the show inevitably recalls West Side Story in its tale of warring youth gangs and a star-crossed romance (not to mention, of course, Romeo and Juliet) and, in its exuberantly choreographed dances featuring athletic young performers, Newsies. This musical adaptation, featuring a book by Adam Rapp and Justin Levine and a score by Levin and Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance (better known as the band Jamestown Revival) proves a perfectly respectable effort with many laudable elements. What it mostly seems to lack is a reason for being.

Except, of course, to further the growing trend of new musicals based on recognizable literary and cinematic properties, amply in evidence on a stretch of 45th Street that features marquees emblazoned with such similar efforts as The Notebook and Water for Elephants. The block doesn’t so much conjure up the magic of Broadway as the not particularly inspired line-up of a movie revival house, if such things still existed.

Early in the show you may actually think you’re in a movie theater, since we’re treated to a clip of the classic Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke projected in large size form. The movie inspires both the central character, 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant, long past adolescence), and the opening song, “Tulsa ’67,” in which he sets the scene in detailed fashion. He has two supportive older brothers, Darrell (Brent Comer) and Sodapop (Jason Schmidt, who ups the onstage heat by taking off his shirt within seconds), who are raising him after the death of their parents in a car accident.

Ponyboy, whose intellectual aspirations and sensitivity are demonstrated by his reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, hangs out with the introspective, emotionally scarred Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch). Along with several others, they’re known as the lower-class “Greasers,” in contrast with the more upscale “Socs,” who live on the other side of the tracks. Among the Greasers is the bad boy Dallas (Joshua Boone), who treats Ponyboy and Johnny as if they were family members.

When Cherry Valance (Emma Pittman), the girlfriend of one of the Socs, strikes up a friendly flirtation with Ponyboy, it sets off a tragic chain of events including an accidental killing for which Ponyboy and Johnny have to go into hiding, a church fire in which they risk their lives to rescue a group of children, a suicide, and a massive brawl between the two gangs, represented by a lavishly choreographed dance in which the performers are drenched in rain. The last element is impressively handled, to be sure, but as the water soaked their heavily muscled bodies, I kept waiting for them to break into the chorus of “Flashdance (What a Feeling).” (And what’s the story with all these onstage soakings? Between this and The Notebook next door, the neighborhood may soon be facing a water emergency.)

It’s hard not to be flip about the melodramatic storyline, which doesn’t feel at home onstage and probably only resonates with adolescents or adults permanently stuck in the condition. Rapp and Levine’s book is relatively faithful to the source material, although some significant plot elements have been altered.  (Less importantly, in the book Ponyboy was reading Gone with the Wind, but that wouldn’t exactly fly in these politically correct times. Also, Great Expectations makes for a better song title.) And speaking of political correctness, in this rendition, needless to say, the Greasers are notably racially diverse and have even allowed a girl into the gang.

If you can get past the general rehashedness of it all, The Outsiders has many things going for it. The folk-rock sounding score features some terrific songs, including the two aforementioned numbers and the powerful “Stay Gold,” even if by the end of the evening they all start to sound the same. Grant delivers a charismatic, beautifully sung performance as Ponyboy, and Boone proves a commanding presence as the ill-fated Dallas. Indeed, the entire young ensemble is attractive and dynamic, and it’s easy to imagine several of them breaking out big time in the future. Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman’s muscular choreography serves the material well, as do the technical elements, although the bare-bones, barnlike set design, by a collective known as “AMP featuring Tatiana Kahvegian,” leaves something to be desired unless you really have a thing for tires. Although I did get a kick out of the hood of the onstage car being converted into a bed, a scenic conceit that ironically mirrors the awkward transition of the angst-ridden source material into a wholesome musical.