First Nighter: Acting Runaways Run Away With Swados's "Runaways"

The multi-awarding-winning Hamilton is a can't-miss reminder that the Public Theater, where the current theater phenomenon originated, has relied over its decades on successful homegrown musicals for sustaining revenues. Its moneymaking precedents are certainly Hair and A Chorus Line.

Examined now, if not then, Elizabeth Swados's Runaways--the first of this summer's City Center Encores! Off-Center revivals, looked to have been another conscious or possibly unconscious attempt to provide additionally significant funds for the downtown institution, which opened the production in 1978 and quickly moved it to Broadway--as Hair and A Chorus Line had done. Once there, however, it had only a modest run.

The late jill-of-all-musical-trades Swados wrote, composed, directed and choreographed Runaways. This is another way of saying that, with her champion Joseph Papp apparently keeping a close eye on her, she had complete jurisdiction over what now looks and sounds like a spin on Hair, which at that point was over a decade old and beginning to strike audiences as dated 1960s lore.

Yes, that musically and lyrically thrilling show--directed by Tom O'Horgan as a revue rather than a strict indictment of insipid parents as it started out to be--was losing box-office luster. Thus, it offered Swados the opportunity to take up a similar subject: Obtuse, often abusive parents were again the targets.

Listening to Runaways now with its songs often employing few notes, few chord-changes and free-form lyrics prompts the thought that in terms of the numbers, Swados seized the wonderfully seminal Galt MacDermot-James Rado-Gerome Ragni "Frank Mills" from Hair as her template. She composed-lyricized along those free-form lines. To keep things hopping, she threw in a bevy of generically repetitive anthems.

The above is not to dismiss the importance of the subject matter. Runaways populating big city streets are often the victims of negligent parents or of deficient upbringing in orphanages. One story, that of a young girl's return home after running away for a short period of time and then encountering the silent treatment leading to a beating, is thoroughly chilling. It's only an example of many other either spoken or sung rat-a-tat tales that make the blood run cold.

But even though Runaways only takes up 80 minutes, Swados herself appears to run out of fresh comments to make. She seems less and less in control of what she hopes to get across, as she simultaneously seems to have left other aspects of runaway life unexplored.

What Swados had going for her then, though, and what director Sam Pinkleton and choreographer Ani Taj have now are young performers bringing Runaways to exuberant life --with Clint Ramos's costumes and Mark Barton's lighting distinguishing them. There is no way to overestimate the contribution these on-stage runaways are offering the audience. As Swados is running out of steam, they're exhibiting enough steam of their own to send old-time trains back and forth across the country multiple times and ocean liners over the sea an equivalent number of times.

Although there are one or two among them having pitch problems during the singing, most of the ensemble (none of the members alive when the original version played)--is made up of Broadway belters having no trouble soaring with the entertainingly raucous on-stage, nine-piece band, led by the always reliable Chris Fenwick at the piano.

Not sold on Swados as much as I am on predecessors MacDermot-Rado-Ragni, there is one song I would like to get to know better. As there are no song titles in the program or mentions of who's singing what, I'll have to identify this item by saying it contains the phrase "The world is made of runaways." Three of the female runaways intoned this one to rafter-raising effect. I suppose I wouldn't mind hearing "Find Me a Hero" again. I also appreciated a remark one of the angrier runaways declared that goes, "The world's an orphanage for grownups."

(For the record, Runaways was originally done in two acts, perhaps implying the likelihood of its being trimmed of material now considered antiquated. The 1978 score did include a song called "Where Are Those People Who Did Hair?" Unless I missed it, it's not reprised this time around. For obvious reasons?)

Because the members of the cast are listed by name but not by character they represent, here the 25 are (Swados used 27): Frenie Acoba, Sumaya Bouhbal, Kenneth Cabral, Maxwell Cabral, Taylor Caldwell, Sophie Anne Caruso (recently tops in Lazarus and Blackbird), Xavier Casimir, Joshua DeJesus, Adleesa Edwards, Aiden Gemme, Reyna Guerra, Matthew Gumley, Christina Jimenez, Kylie McNeill, Cele Pahucki, Sam Poon, Siena Rafter, Claudia Ramirez, Ren, MJ Rodriguez, Deandre Sevon, Jeremy Shindler, Ripley Sobo, Chris Sumpter and Maxwell Vice.

Thanks and congratulations to them all. While depicting runaways, they do an admirable job of running away with Swados's show.