'Runaways': Theater Review

Runaways- Still 2-NY City Center-H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
This exuberantly performed revival serves as a fitting memorial for its creator, who passed away earlier this year.

The Encores! Off-Center series revives Elizabeth Swados' groundbreaking 1978 musical, which featured a 13-year-old Diane Lane in its original incarnation.

It's not surprising that there's a discernable lack of grittiness in the Encores! Off-Center revival of Elizabeth Swados' Runaways. When the show was first produced at New York's Public Theater and then on Broadway in 1978, its performers included many actual teenage runaways found by its creator in community centers and shelters (as well as a 13-year-old Diane Lane). While this current incarnation boasts about being "cast largely with students from throughout the five boroughs," its populous ensemble includes recent veterans of such Broadway shows as Matilda, School of Rock, Finding Neverland, Mary Poppins and The King and I. The only thing these preternaturally talented young performers appear to be running away from is the stampede of agents eager to sign them.

Still, the musical, which displays a more-than-casual resemblance to the similarly groundbreaking Hair — the influence is amusingly acknowledged in the number "Where Are Those People Who Did Hair?" — holds up surprisingly well even in this gentrified presentation. A revue expressing both the anguish and joyfulness of its teenage characters via song, spoken word, poetry and dance, the show displays a youthful vitality and exuberance that stems not only from the performers but also from Swados, who died earlier this year at age 64. For her original efforts, she received Tony Award nominations for her book, music, direction and choreography, with the show itself also nominated for best musical.

The stirring score — displaying influences including pop, blues, country and western, Latin, reggae and early hip-hop — is still the best thing about Runaways, even if none of the songs have had significant exposure in the intervening decades. As performed here by 25 ethnically diverse young actors accompanied by a terrific nine-piece band led by musical director Chris Fenwick, the music packs a real punch, especially such numbers as "Song of a Child Prostitute," "Find Me a Hero," "Every Now and Then" and the stirring "Enterprise."

The hodgepodge assemblage of spoken interludes is stylistically scattershot enough to induce emotional whiplash. Comic vignettes involving a pint-sized, self-styled movie director give way to a harrowing monologue by a young girl about the horrific physical abuse she suffered upon returning home after running away. And a bitter fight between two young lovers, delivered entirely in Spanish from theater boxes on opposite sides of the auditorium, comes across like a joke in search of a punchline.

For all the energy harnessed in the lively staging by director Sam Pinkleton and choreographer Ani Taj, the show never feels as profound as it was intended to be. It mainly comes across as a period piece, albeit one with such contemporary touches as having some of the lyrics also delivered in sign language. But then again, all you have to do is hang around at the Port Authority Bus Terminal for a few hours to recognize that the musical's themes have sadly not been rendered irrelevant.

Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Frenie Acoba, Sumaya Bouhbal, Kenneth Cabral, Maxwell Cabral, Taylor Caldwell, Sophia Anne Caruso, Xavier Casimir, Joshua DeJesus, Adleesa Edwards, Aidan Gemme, Reyna Guerra, Matthew Gumley, Christina Jimenez, Kylie McNeill, Cele Pahucki, Sam Poon, Siena Rafter, Claudia Ramirez, Ren, MJ Rodriguez, Deandre Sevon, Jeremy Shinder, Ripley Sobo, Chris Sumpter, Maxwell Vice
Book, music & lyrics: Elizabeth Swados
Director: Sam Pinkleton
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music director: Chris Fenwick
Ani Taj
Presented by New York City Center Encores! Off-Center