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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 7, 2016

Photo by Joan Marcus

Few theatre companies capture the in-the-trenches zeitgeist in their musicals the way The Public Theater does. From the hippies of Hair (1967) and the cultural and demographic blending of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971) to the conceptual populist revolution of A Chorus Line (1975) and the racial historical reordering of Hamilton (I'm guessing we don't need a date for that one), these are shows uniquely positioned to identify and explore the trenchant "now" that explains the evolution of America and its art. To this list, should we not rightfully add Runaways, the 1978 Elizabeth Swados-written, -directed, and -almost-everything-elsed musical that is being resuscitated at City Center this weekend as part of the Encores! Off-Center series?

Based on this production, which has been helmed by Sam Pinkleton (director) and Chris Fenwick (musical director), the answer would seem to be a qualified no. The qualification comes, of course, from the fact that Runaways is quite obviously "important" (quotation marks included): Swados cobbled it together from the real stories of New York City runaways, and then presented it (first Off-Broadway, slightly later on) with a multi-ethnic young cast that could embody the anger, despair, and displacement it chronicles. As a documentary document of its time, it's invaluable; and in the fusion it demonstrates between African-American, Latino, and more traditionally Caucasian song styles, it was a critical next step in the journey The Public is still making today.

But is Runaways actually good, or just good for you? Truthful and representative though it may perhaps be, it has real difficulty making its case for the former. This is partly mechanical—the musical numbers, so determined to be appropriate pop, do not pop themselves with any real melodic variety or direction—but more due to the preciousness of its approach and construction. The songs are interwoven with speeches, poetry, and spoken word pieces that try to fashion a gritty tapestry of what it's like to live (and, by extension, die) on the streets, but these carry little insight or power beneath the surface.

Take one of the first lyrics: "Where do people go / When they run away? / Tell me where do they go / And where do they stay / If they stay?" Or an early line of dialogue: "When people do see you, it's because they want you. They don't care who you are. It's you, your body, that they want. And once they're finished using it, they throw it away, just like trash." Another: "Me and my sister had this fight once, but it was weird because I hit her, and I don't usually hit." Still another: "It's bad enough that we had to run away in the first place. But we have to die, too?"

Photo by Joan Marcus

The last one is made distinctive here only because it's delivered via America Sign Language by a performer named Ren, who suggests a helpless rage and hopelessness beyond the mere words (which are projected onto a mattress, one of the many found objects constituting Donyale Werle's strategically cluttered downtown-junkyard set). Other scenes are similarly notable less for what they say than how they say it. "Argument," for example, is a couple of minutes of two people (played, with no shortage of fire, by Claudia Ramirez and Joshua DeJesus) shouting at each other from the theater's boxes in Spanish, which was likely a bracing novelty among white English-speaking audiences in the 1970s, but loses its sting given the bland, boilerplate content (essentially: "Were you cheating on me?" "No!" "Yes you were!"). And "The Undiscovered Son" tackles the notion of celebrity as filtered through a lens of minority inclusion, but aside from name-dropping everyone from Judy Garland to Eddie Fisher to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, does not accomplish much.

Some moments fare better. "Graffiti," which equates spray-painted subway creations to the creations of Picasso, Chagall, and Gauguin, successfully digs into the mind of an underground artist. (And MJ Rodriguez, who unleashes it here, does so with a lip-smacking flamboyance that ensures you believe every word.) "Where Are the People Who Did Hair?", led by an excellent Matthew Gumley, is at once a hilarious riff on entertainment appropriation and chilling proof of how quickly the current becomes passé. And in "Lullaby from Baby to Baby," the closest the evening gets to a sensitive theme statement, Rodriguez, Taylor Caldwell, and Kylie McNeill give aching voice to an important generation sentiment: "The world is full of people / Running / The world is made of / Runaways / Tomorrow you'll be a different child / Than the one you are today."

Overall, though, the writing is neither captivating nor distinguished; Fenwick's nine-piece band sizzles, but Pinkleton's direction and Ani Taj's reluctant-feeling choreography fall short of its electric ideal; and this particular cast, though energetic, is only intermittently up to the material's largely modest demands. (The only other noteworthy actor is the dynamic Sophia Anne Caruso, of The Nether and Lazarus Off-Broadway and this season's Blackbird on, who sings the acidic "Song of a Child Prostitute.") Looking at them, though, reveals a stirring panoply of diverse humanity: short, tall, trans, cis, hiding, open, every imaginable color of skin and hair. (Cele Pahucki, whose head bears a literal rainbow with an emphasis on sapphire, is especially striking.) It is, by any measure, Joseph Papp's Public Theater mission writ larger than ever.

Just don't stare too long. If you do, Clint Ramos's costumes start to distract with their tactical vivacity and squeaky-clean fashion sense, and once that happens, the illusion can never be pieced back together. It doesn't have anything else to offer, so the instant it leaves Swados's intricately constructed world, even for a second, is the instant it becomes permanently fake. Runaways, unlike its subjects but like its audiences then and now, doesn't live on the streets—it just wants to visit.

Through July 9
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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