WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
INFO $25-$115; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Slick revival of earnest late ‘70s show about street kids
Elizabeth Swados is getting more press attention right now than she has since her “Runaways,” written when she was 26, went to Broadway and got five 1979 Tony nominations. This is criminal, but perhaps better than nothing.
Swados, who died of cancer in January at 64, is earning justifiably delightful reviews for her novel, “Walking the Dog,” published posthumously by the Feminist Press with an afterward by Gloria Steinem. And “Runaways” is receiving a high-energy revival this weekend at the Encores! Off-Center series.
Swados — author, lyricist, composer, visionary, political and artistic radical — was behind some of my most memorable downtown theater experiences. These included the gut-wrenchingly primal “Fragments of a Greek Trilogy,” directed by Andrei Serban in 1975 and the young Meryl Streep embodying a riot of down-the-rabbit-hole characters in the 1981 “Alice in Concert.”
“Runaways,” first produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theater, is about a young street tribe not unlike the older one in “Hair” almost a decade earlier. Swados created her work from the stories and ideas of others, much like the way “A Chorus Line” was put together there in 1975.
In fact, “Runaways,” a nonlinear musical based on the lives of street kids, never was among my favorite Swados adventures. Much of the show struck me as unoriginal and overly earnest, part self-explanatory social work and the rest a conscious effort by this off-Off Broadway force to sand her rough edges for a commercial audience.
I wish I could say that the revival has changed my misgivings of a show that, through the years, has apparently meant a lot to a lot of other people. Directed by Sam Pinkleton and choreographed by Ani Taj, both former Swados students at NYU, the slick production has 25 charismatic performers, ages 12-19. They have been well schooled in the appropriate scrappy poignancy of their unnamed characters from a time when torn jeans were not a fashion statement.
The 80-minute show certainly has moments that feel like vintage Swados—the world-rhythms that drive the onstage band, the speech-song deliveries, the combinations of pop and poetry slam and, definitely, some early hip-hop. Performers arise from a set of throwaway street detritus. Songs—a few like trenchant little plays—include sign language and Spanish.
But the overall effect is showbizzy, clean and chic. It is easy to look at these talented kids and see the careers ahead of them. What we don’t see is the grit.