Runaways, an Encores! Off-Center production at New York City Center.
Rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Homeless youngsters flooding the urban streets may not be the news-making epidemic they were some 40 years ago. However, in a superb remounting by Encores! Off-Center, Runaways, Elizabeth Swados’ exploration of the phenomenon, proves to be as relevant and gut-grabbing as when first performed nearly 40 years ago.
Swados, who died this past January, created the show in her mid-twenties, as a result of her exploratory work with a diverse group of runaway teenagers. It opened Off-Broadway early in 1978 at the Public Theater Cabaret and quickly moved to Broadway, where it played 12 previews and 274 regular performances.
Encores! Off-Center is the summer offshoot of City Center’s Encores! programme, which celebrates musicals of the past in elaborately staged ‘concert’ performances. The summer offerings deal with shows with Off-Broadway origins.
Its revival of Runaways, which was planned before Swados’ death, is a pulsating testimony to her genius as both a musician and a documentarian of the human condition, as refracted through youthful psyches. It embodies in its amalgam of songs and monologs, both the pain and uncertainties of growing up into what seems a calamitous world and the high energy that accompanies this ‘spring awakening’.
The range of the show’s music is equally astounding, from the propulsive chant of nursery rhyme nonsense to the intoxicating sophistication of reggae rhythms and the fierceness of lyrics and beats that foretell hip hop. All of it is excitingly rendered with gusto and emotional depth by the company, backed by the onstage nine-piece band led by Chris Fenwick, the Off-Center series music director.
The revival has been directed by Sam Pinkleton and choreographed by Ani Taj, who were both students of Swados. They triumph in putting together a cast of 25 young performers, who – in only ten rehearsals – function as a totally organic ensemble and then, individually, are able to leave the crowd, grab the microphone and spotlight, and deliver galvanising solo work.
It’s a company of New York City teenagers, mostly ranging in age from 12 to 19, but being New York kids, their bios are studded with such credits as Matilda the Musical, Finding Neverland and The King and I. But be assured, there’s not a shred of kiddie cuteness to be seen anywhere on the stage, as the performers reveal a litany of woes. We hear of parental abuse and broken homes.
As a 13-year-old prostitute talks about her profession, Sophia Anne Caruso’s matter-of-fact delivery can freeze your blood. Matthew Gumley’s depiction of a befogged drug addict and pusher is harrowing in its sense of obliviousness. The suffocating anxiety that can be caused by simply a cursory knowledge of current events – from acts of random violence to the development of new weapons of war – is depicted by Sam Poon with a riveting intimation of quiet but mounting terror.
But heart-rending as this is, the show is also surprisingly exhilarating. There are sequences that bristle with show-biz pizzazz and humour, even when the theme is laced with darkness. At one point, Jeremy Shinder grabs a megaphone and screams with bluster of a burgeoning standup comic: “Who’s directing this movie? The soundtrack is all wrong, all wrong. It’s too gloomy. It’s too savage. We need some violins. Something more upbeat.”
He then leads the company in a rousing number about looking for superheroes, although it carries the message that they have all been “flattened out” in comic books. The oppression of celebrity culture even gets an airing, as Chris Sumpter, with a deliberately seductive charm that could well mask insanity, tells us, just for starters, that he is “the undiscovered son of Judy Garland…the unknown son of John F. Kennedy…”
While I’ve only mentioned a handful of the performers, each one of the 25 well merits their own paragraphs of praise. And while Runaways was slated for only five performances, it exudes enough energy to fuel a run that could stretch into years.