I wish I could tell you I enjoyed myself at Encores Off-Center’s Runaways (now through Sunday at City Center) because its only asset, a cast made up of teens mostly found by combing New York City high schools, is impressive, singing and dancing and acting their hearts out. You gotta love ’em. But then there’s that show.
I’ve railed against spinach musicals before. Like one of those long pathetic Sunday infomercials that ask you to give all you can. A good cause is a good cause: I don’t dispute that. But, usually, the illumination of a societal problem doesn’t make for good entertainment. Audiences are looking to be moved, sure, and the plight of runaway children is undeniably sad. But why should the show last longer than an infomercial? After one number made the point, “It’s tough to be a homeless teen,” on came another number, convincingly stating, “It’s tough to be a homeless teen.” And then another. And then another.
I got the feeling I got at Cats. Some human in a big fur costume did some cute shpiel. And then another. And then another. And then I started checking my watch. Reductio ad absurdum.
Like Cats, which came later, auteur Elizabeth Swados wisely utilized an ever-changing mish-mash of styles. This fends off boredom, to an extent. And it goes beyond musical styles. Here, monologues are delivered in different cadences, some of the show is in Spanish, and some in sign language. You hear a passel of rap. (Just so you don’t think last season’s shows were doing something totally new.) I found myself admiring how Swados overlaps different sounds and songs. One of the more amusing numbers is called Where Are All the People Who Did ‘Hair?’ and you want to check your program because the music is so reminiscent of that hit from the previous decade. On the way out of the theatre, I found myself humming the Hair song that mentions “emancipator of the slaves.”
Maybe, though, this was my way of celebrating my emancipation from that theatre. Relentless adolescent angst wears pretty thin, pretty fast. Spring Awakening, Bare, 13 – can we grow up already? At least Runaways came before.
But unlike those others, there is no plot, no named characters. Telling us that it’s hard to be a teen is telling us we all already know from experience. Telling us that it’s hard to be a homeless teen – well, does anyone think their life is cushy? And why do nursery rhymes keep getting quoted: listen for Catch a Tiger By the Toe and the tune to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Seems like there must be a point to all this. The opposite of Peter Pan, here are kids who are forced to grow up before their time. I give it points for verisimilitude, but you can score a few points and still lose.
As you know, I tend to focus on the writing of shows. (Really, I could rave about the performers, but I suspect you didn’t come here for that.) Runaways has book, music, lyrics and was originally directed by Elizabeth Swados, who died earlier this year. It’s an impressive accomplishment, but I wonder if that much control in the hands of one young person meant that nobody ever said to her “Liz, we get it. Make another point, now.” And one could toast to the show’s uniqueness. “She’s an original!” is a thing you might say, as gallery-goers utter in the second act of Sunday in the Park With George. But, that’s a line someone says when they can’t quite bring themselves to praise an artist. Original doesn’t necessarily equal good. And Runaways doesn’t necessarily equal entertainment.