BWW Review: Elizabeth Swados' RUNAWAYS, The Anti-ANNIE
Those who remember Times Square of the late 1970s will tell you that, although things were improving from the mid-70s, the area was still thick with hookers, drug dealers, con artists and sex shops. Among them you were bound to find an assortment of runaway kids from all over the country.
The theatre district may have been anchored by a few solid hits like the original production of GREASE and its eventual successor as Broadway's longest runner, A CHORUS LINE, but there were playhouses that stayed empty for lengthy stretches while tourists and locals were warned to avoid the area.
So during this time Broadway was a little more welcoming to productions that might not otherwise have come in, such as Vinnette Carroll's religious spectacle YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD, the doppelganger concert BEATLEMANIA and Earl Wilson, Jr.'s LET MY PEOPLE COME, which dodged the critics by previewing for three months and never opening.
Elizabeth Swados, known to downtown audiences for her Village Gate song cycle NIGHTCLUB CANTATA, had supplied incidental music to a few Broadway productions before Runaways moved uptown from The Public Theater in 1978. She had approached Joseph Papp with an idea that reflected the concepts of two other projects that originated at The Public, HAIR and A CHORUS LINE; that of a collage of songs, monologues and poetry that profiled a created community.
She took to the streets, community centers, anywhere where she could find children who had run away from home who would talk with her. While she did give authorship credit to some who supplied what became full pieces, the rest of Runaways was written, composed, directed and choreographed by Swados.
The streetscape score, with its unapologetically blunt lyrics, is mostly rock-based, but glides into Latin, reggae, folk and an early style of hip-hop. The teenage characters speak (and sing) of being robbed of a childhood of just going to school and hanging out in the playground by abusive parents and the abusive parent-figures who take their place, but somehow youthful optimism, tempered by the cynicism that comes from experience, prevails.
The previous season's smash hit about children without parents, ANNIE, played up on 52nd Street's Alvin Theatre, safely distanced from the heart of Times Square's decay. Audiences attending Runaways during its eight months at 45th Street's Plymouth were smack in the middle of it.
While much of the original Runaways cast was made of up young performers giving what would be their only Broadway appearance, the twenty-five actors who make up director Sam Pinkleton's Encores! Off-Center company playing the piece in concert form at City Center come with a great deal of Broadway and other professional experience.
Nevertheless, their connection to the material is often heartbreaking and gut-wrenching, like when diminutive Ripley Sobo delivers a monologue of how her character would kick in her parents' television set to get their attention, and they would respond with unbelievable cruelty. Sophia Anne Caruso sings of being a 13-year-old prostitute, providing fantasies for disappointed daddies until she's old enough to get a driver's license and go out west. A performer named Ren speaks with barely bottled rage in American Sign Language, her parents blaming her for her deafness and refusing to learn her language.
Jeremy Shinder breaks some of the tension as an aspiring film director who takes a look at the proceedings and demands something more upbeat. ("It's too gloomy. It's too savage.") A song about "the people who did HAIR" criticizes the flower power generation for growing into replicas of what they were revolting against.
Music director Chris Fenwick's nine-piece band plays on designer Donyale Werle's junkyard set, looking like the kind of locale where the characters might choose to spend a night in relative safety. Ani Taj's choreography is properly simple, giving a realistic improvised feel.
Swados passed on earlier this year and during bows the company offers her a loving tribute. But the exciting blasts of energy, talent and empathetic understanding of the search for something to run to, rather than from, might be tribute enough.