Swados, who died of cancer at 64 this past January, created the show through interviews with street kids and other teenagers for the Public Theater where it opened in February of 1978. It moved to Broadway on May 13 of that year, ran for seven months, garnering five Tony Award nominations, four for Swados who wrote, composed, choreographed and directed the musical. Like many of her cutting edge shows, the score is eclectic containing pop, folk, Latin, blues, reggae, disco, and lyrics that sound like what is today called hip-hop. The show’s 34 numbers include songs, monologues, dance and poetry. While the format may have seemed strange in 1978, it now seems contemporary and mainstream.
Pinkleton and choreographer Ani Taj, both of whom had studied with Swados at New York University where they first met, have reconceived the fluid show around the talent that had been cast so that the songs have been assigned differently than in the 1978 productions. Performed on Donyale Werle’s set which resembles a commune, squat or a drug den, and lit by Mark Barton in such way as to become a character in the show, Runaways is actually a metaphor for teenage angst. The topics of the songs and monologues include the generation gap, teenage preoccupations, the search for heroes, anxiety about troubling events in the news, abusive family relationships, school problems, dreams of the future, and bad parenting.
The songs and monologues are equally divided so that all in the cast get to shine in one number or another. Many are standouts: Frenie Acoba delivers the furious “This Is Very Serious (Appendectomy)” in which she describes a forced, necessary operation on her doll/child. In “Current Events,” Sam Poon makes his report to the class on world crises but worries most about being flunked by the teacher. Sophia Anne Caruso (who has appeared in David Bowie’s Lazarus in 2015 and Jennifer Haley’s The Nether in 2014) portrays a 13-year-old girl in “The Song of the Child Prostitute” who enjoys her life of being protected by her pimp – for now. Jeremy Shinder, a bundle of nervous energy, plays a young man who sees the world as though he were a movie director (“Heroes”). Ren and Siena Rafter perform several numbers in which Ren signs and Rafter vocalizes them like “You Don’t Understand” and “This Is What I Do When I Am Angry.”
Several powerful group songs include “Enterprise” (ways of surviving and making money) and the witty “Where Are Those People Who Did Hair?” which criticizes those who have joined the establishment and sold out (“They spent a lot on Yoga, Freud and Zen.”) Some of the numbers have iconic lines which still resonate after all these years: “The world is an orphanage for grown-ups” (“Spoons”), “We are not strangers, In fact I know you well,” and the stunning final reprise: “Let me be just a kid out in the playground/ Let me be young before I get old” (“Let Me Be A Kid”). Among the talented cast, special mention goes to Matthew Gumley and MJ Rodriguez who turn their white hot anger into art.
While at first the format seems scattershot, by the end it is greater than the sum of its parts. Credit is also due to the dynamic onstage band led by music director Chris Fenwick which appears to back up all 34 of the numbers. The raw energy channeled on the City Center stage by director Sam Pinkleton is remarkable considering the youthfulness of the cast. This may be why this show which deals with only serious topics is so exhilarating. These are all performers that we should be hearing from very soon again.
Runaways (July 6 – 9, 2016)
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center
New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call City Tix at 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission