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November 7, 2006 > "Runaways" passionately embraced by Newark Memorial Drama

"Runaways" passionately embraced by Newark Memorial Drama

by Julie Grabowski

The students of Newark Memorial High School take on the burdens of emotionally and physically scarred kids in their latest musical production. Originally produced in New York in 1978, "Runaways" is the disturbing account of 28 children who have fled abuse, alcoholism, hate, cruelty, and indifference in their homes. The five-time Tony Award winner was conceived, written, and composed by Elizabeth Swados and based on true experiences. The material has been updated to current time for greater impact and relevance, referencing popular sports figures, movie stars, and singers as well as President Bush, 9/11, and the war in Iraq.

We are taken to a graffitied, ramshackle world under a New York City bridge where kids have descended into drugs, prostitution, violence, and mental instability. The runaways emerge in darkness to Phil Collins's "Another Day in Paradise", and are introduced one by one via photographs past and present accompanied by a brief account of their background. What follows is a pulsing conglomeration of speeches and songs illustrating the effects of kids growing up without boundaries, instruction, attention, and love, mourning the loss of their childhood. They struggle with confusion and guilt, pretend happiness, the search for a real hero and substitutes for family, the fear of death and becoming a statistic.

The issues are very much in your face; the number of people on the stage alone is powerful, sometimes uncomfortably so as they display their wounds at close range, often at the very edge of the stage. The actors deliver the harsh subject matter with great passion and energy, putting all they have into their roles. Hope and humor do exist amid the heart wrenching tales, exhibited in the animated and energetically comic performance of Rachel Camins as Julie Kiel who claims God is her ventriloquist, and the delightfully funny Kenny Silberberg as the director/superhero Alexander Fredericks. Fellow runaway Regina Rosenbloom carries the banner of hope as played by Alexis Beverly, always trying to spread that hope by giving out flowers, though they are seldom appreciated. Similarly, Kendall Andrews's Paige Ion, or "Pidge", says, "You gotta keep dreaming of something better or someone better, or what's the point?" even though she believes that birds are better listeners than people and tends to stick with them. Christine Dizon, Marina Toft, and Danny Englese also give notable performances as damaged youths.

Director Brandon Harrington and Newark Memorial Drama are to be commended for their ambitious project, admirably delivered by a cast and crew of over 50 people. The gritty, bleak set shows the care and attention of its designers in creating a world, although how a school bus, subway and bus stops, and a working telephone booth happen to be collected under a bridge is a bit of an oddity. The only true negative in this production was for those who love to read every word of their programs, as half of it was practically indecipherable. The names of actors and characters were difficult to understand, which is unfortunate, because who has never wanted to see their name displayed in clear, undeniable print? You also miss out on the extended background of some of the runaways.

The cruel and unflinching story of "Runaways" is a lot to absorb but definitely worth the experience. It challenges us to consider the world around us, the choices we make, and how we treat others, regardless of relationship or age, and how our actions impact them.  It also acknowledges that anyone can be a runaway, even parents. The runaways' pervading and final plea is for permission to be a kid, free and out on the playground, where every kid should be.

Reserved-seating tickets are $7, $10 at the door; seniors, NMHS students and children under 12 are $5 in advance and $8 at the door. To order tickets or for more information call (510) 818-4451.

Fridays and Saturdays, November 10, 11, 17, and 18
8:00 p.m.
Newark Memorial Theatre
39375 Cedar Blvd., Newark
(510) 818-4451

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