There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the new stage version of the 1989 film drama Dead Poets Society, which is receiving its premiere Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company, and which stars Jason Sudeikis as unorthodox poetry teacher John Keating (the role made famous by Robin Williams). It’s just completely unnecessary.
For those who haven’t caught it on cable at some point over the past three decades, Dead Poets Society shows how Keating arrives at a teenage boys’ preparatory school in 1959 and encourages his students to be freethinkers, appreciate romantic poetry and just generally “seize the day.”
The running time has been trimmed to about 90 minutes, and some extraneous characters have been excised. As is always the case with a John Doyle (The Color Purple) production, it is visually spare. Instead of desks, the boys stand upon small stacks of books in order to give their climactic “Oh Captain! My Captain!” salute to Mr. Keating.
But Tom Schulman’s script is essentially a rehash of his original screenplay, and the sentimental and solemn tone remains the same, which means that this stage adaptation brings almost nothing new to the underlying property, even if its central message that the humanities can enrich your life is always welcome to hear (especially at a time when anti-intellectualism seems to be winning the day on a national scale).
When a movie is turned into a musical, its creators need to (or at least should) seriously consider how to retell it in the unique and challenging language of musical theater. Non-musical stage versions of films, on the other hand, are far less common because there is far less potential for change – to make the stage version stand on its own.
Sudeikis (who has emerged as a major film actor since his time on Saturday Night Live) has a pleasant ease as Keating, but he lacks the sadness and warmth that made Williams so unforgettable in the role. The young men playing the students are all full of adolescent spirit, while David Garrison has a harsh edge as the stentorian schoolmaster.
With all due respect to Doyle (who, at his best, does brilliant work) and Schulman (whose original screenplay is beautiful), why should theatergoers pay big bucks to see a pale imitation when the original film can be viewed so easily? That being said, the limited run appears to be completely sold out, so what do I know?