Entertainment » Theatre


by Marcus Scott
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jul 26, 2016

Opening its fourth season, the Encores! Off-Center concert series, which cherry-picks long-lost off-Broadway productions for a limited engagement revival at the New York City Center, selected a peculiar choice for the series with "Runaways," Elizabeth Swados's rock 'n roll revue about the Catch-22 of troubled street kids.

When the show was first produced at the Public Theater and then for 274 performances in an eight-month Broadway run in 1978, the ensemble featured various genuine teenage runaways that were themselves discovered by the playwright-director in community centers and shelters. Alongside them was then-unknown 13-year-old Diane Lane (who turned down a role in the Broadway run to make her feature-film debut opposite Laurence Olivier in "A Little Romance").

For her efforts on the original production, Swados received five Tony Award nominations for her book, score, direction and choreography, with the show itself also nominated for best musical. In regards to its legacy, the show is virtually disregarded.

Performed in this revival by 25 über-talented, diverse, multiethnic young thespians and accompanied by a terrific nine-piece band led by musical director Chris Fenwick, the score gets the sonic boost its deserves with surprising results. Under the artistic direction of Jeanine Tesori, with compelling direction by hotshot stage wizard Sam Pinkleton (Simon Stephens's "Heisenberg" and Dave Malloy's "Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812"), the show rarely falters; emotions pulsate like the nuclear energy of an atomic blast.

The music -- a meteoric mélange of protest rock, sunshine pop, psychedelic soul, blues, country and western, Latin, reggae and proto hip-hop -- creates a stereophonic sound that echoes the powder keg chaos of its predecessors like "Hair." In structure, it is also unlike anything on Broadway, off-Broadway or regional theatre. That's because it evokes many of the shape-shifting musicals have premiered around 1970s Times Square.

Whether it's 1970's "The Me Nobody Knows," a multi-genre oratorio about inner-youth surviving in urban ghettos and prejudice; 1976's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf," an episodic choreopoem about black women who have suffered oppression at the hands of racism and sexism; or the eponymous "Working," all of these shows evoke a dystopian subterranean that was nigh-invisible.

What makes this revival truly shine is the inclusion of MJ Rodriquez, a transgender actress who has cut her teeth off-Broadway in revivals of Johnathan Larson's "RENT" and has become a highly visible performer in the New York City theatre scene. While there has been much headway in the last five years concerning the LGBQTIA community, when it comes to transgender teenagers in particular, especially those left homeless to lay waste on boardwalks, under bridges or occupying the scattered remains of Covenant House, issues concerning such a population seem disparaging when one considers the group's visibility on the list of today's hot topics in media and pop culture.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, LGBT youth, once homeless, are at higher risk for victimization, mental health problems and unsafe sexual practices. In fact, 58.7 percent of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4 percent of heterosexual homeless youth. Thus, LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62 percent) than heterosexual homeless youth (29 percent).

With the inclusion of Rodriguez in this production, it further forces the status quo to look at homelessness and the epidemic of runaway youth for what it is, a crumbling infrastructure of American family values and first world hypocrisy.

It also creates a puzzling argument for the value of "the other," be it the presence of people of color in the business world or their necessary significance in pop culture. MJ Rodriquez's breath-taking treatise "Mr. Graffiti," an ode to dead white men in the visual arts and the character assassination of street artists of color, who have redefined the industry by emphasizing innovative DIY treatments to creating complex and unique art, is indicative of this. In fact, throughout Elizabeth Swados's nonconformist rock musical underscores this otherness with the incorporation of soul-crushing monologues and poignant spoken interludes from the youths themselves.

Exhibit A: Sam Poon's heart-shattering delivery of the exposé "Current Events," where he recalls the Summer of Sam murders, the assassinations of J.F.K. and Martin Luther King, the nuclear arms race, gay-bashing and rampant violent assaults on nonwhite persons happening in the wake of the Civil Rights movements.

Exhibit B: Deandre Sevon's heart-shattering call-to-arms poem "To the Dead of Family Wars," an ode to broken homes, chosen families, coming of age and childhood neglect. Exhibit C: Sophia Anne Caruso's dead pan delivery of "Song of a Child Prostitute" dissects human trafficking and as its title suggests, the predatory harangue of youth and the loss of innocence that comes with fending for yourself on city streets. All of it is done to cringe-worthy and tear-inducing effect.

Other songs such as "Spoons," "Enterprise," ""Find Me a Hero," Every Now and Then" and "Let Me Be A Kid" conjure up frightening conversations of heroin addiction, child abuse, puberty and gang violence, among others.

A cauldron of childhood trauma and teenage angst, "Runaways" is by no means a perfect musical. Balancing shock and sheer astonishment with schmaltziness sometimes for cheap laughs or cringe-worthy horror, with a musical catalogue of ephemeral thrills, the show makes up a lot in gusto. The performances are jubilant, the narrative is disquieting and the vision, awe-inspiring. Hopefully, Tesori and Pinkleton tag-team again, this time on the main stage.

"Runaways" ran through July 9 at the New York City Center, 131 W 55th St in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org/


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