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A CurtainUp Review

Where do people go
When they run away?
Tell me where do they go
And where do they stay
If they stay?

— "Where Do People Go"

Sophia Anne Caruso stars (Photo: Joan Marcus)
When 27-year-old Elizabeth Swados's Runaways with opened 38 years ago it was another ground-breaking hit for the Public Theater. Like A Chorus Line, an for colored girls who have considered suicide. . . the show's off-Broadway beginnings and history qualify it for Encores! Off-Center mission of of giving new, if brief, life to under-appreciated Off-Broadway born musicals. The Broadway transfer after 80 performances at Martinson Hall had a respectable but hardly record breaking 274-performance run. Though it generated a limited cult following, it failed to gain a toehold on the regional circuit.

While Runaways echoed the presentational style of A Chorus Line, its closest kin was Hair, the Public's even earlier winner about a 60s tribal group of disillusioned young people. Like that show it's very period specific and thus not easy to stage. If you want to be true to the original, many of the references will be dated and have little meaning to young audiences. Yet, as the Encores! production's director Sam Pinkleton explains in a program background article by Rob Weinert-Kendt, you do want to honor the original's feeling of "in-the-moment immediacy." This is especially pertinent given that Elizabeth Swados's untimely death last year has also made this an unanticipated homage to her visionary talent and influence on other musicals. But since this is a show about young people, and with a large and very young cast, it also needs to be entertaining enough to make the show's inevitably dated references irrelevant.

Mr. Pinkleton, choreographer Ani Taj, Chris Fenwick and his 7-piece on-stage band, and the design team — and most of all the super-talented ensemble — have done a great job of dealing with these problems. This concert style Runaways is not a slavish recreation of the original, which was done in two acts and featured a cast of mostly actual runaways interviewed by Swados, nor does it update the lyrics or time frame. Instead, the cast is assembled mostly from the city's performing arts high schools, many of them with Broadway and Off-Broadway performances to their credit. The only running away they'll be doing is to runaway success in show business.

And so, if some of the stories narrated and sung are not quite "now" and the cast is not as authentically right off the streets, no matter. They are more authentic in terms diversity, unlike Swados more predominantly white runaways (When Swados did her research, the runaways landing at the 42nd Street bus terminal were mostly white kids escaping from abusive and otherwise unhappy middle-America homes). Most importantly, Swados's music, the exuberant singing and dancing are genuinely of the moment and timelessly entertaining. This is especially true by jazzy, high energy full company numbers with catchy lyrics like "Basketball Song" in which the lead player Kenneth Cabral likens the basketball he holds to "a
planet, bigger than the sun and stranger than the moon."

As for older audiences, whether they saw the original Runaways or not, this production is truly a revelation of Swados's influence on casting, story telling and musical styles. This is evident from the get-go with "You Don't Understand" delivered in sign language by Ren and Sienna Rafter. No, this isn't an add-on bit of bringing the show up to date. Swados cast a deaf actor and had him use sign language in the original, long before Deaf West's production of Big River and Spring Awakening with which both the current performers were involved. Of course, Matilda and School of Rock also owe owe a debt to Swados's pioneering use of an all under age 19 cast.

Most importantly, Swados's music as exuberantly performed is genuinely of the moment and timelessly entertaining. This is especially true for jazzy, high energy full company numbers with catchy lyrics like "Basketball Song" in which the lead player Kenneth Cabral likens the basketball he holds to "a planet, bigger than the sun and stranger than the moon." Also entertaining enough and so amusingly performed is Jeremy Shinder's "Heroes" that it doesn't matter that only audience members of a certain age will know the heroes mentioned. The clarity of the performers delivery helps the audience's to appreciate the enduring lyricism of some of the lyrics which include some striking similes; like Sophia Anne Caruso, tough but poignant "Song of a Child Prostitute" that likens a pimp-prostitute arrangement to a "mutual enterprise" and sex to "a business like kitchenware." "O the Dead of Family Wars" in which boys and girls see their mothers and fathers "scraping the strength off selves like bark off trees" or their lives " spread out like caged bird wings" and close up chance "like fat cardboard books." While hip-hop was not even part of our musical vocabulary in 1971 there are definite signs of it in evidence. Also ahead of its time, the musical world view evident in several songs delivered in Spanish.

Ms. Swados did the whole nine yards with the original production: composer/lyricist/librettist/ director/choreographer— occasionally even guitarist. If she were still with us, I think she'd be happy with what her former students have done with her neglected but influential "baby." Swados continued to pursue her unique vision throuout her all too brief life. Here are links to two shows we reviewed: Jabu and Kapar Hauset

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Book, Lyrics, and Music by Elizabeth Swados
Directed by Sam Pinkleton
Choreography by Ani Taj
Music Director Chris Fenwick
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, and Maxwell Vice.
Encores! Off-Center at City Center 131 West 55^th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
From 7/06/16 to 7/09
Wed and Thu at 7:30pm, Fri at 8pm, Sat at 2 & 8pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/08/16 performanxe

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