A total of thirty-two teens participated in this year’s Teens On Stage production at Raleigh Little Theatre. The show, Runaways, is a musical theatre production written and composed by Elizabeth Swados that premiered off-Broadway in 1978. It follows the predicament of twenty-five teens who band together in an abandoned warehouse to eke out a troubling and dangerous existence. For each runaway, the reason for leaving home is different, but the end result is the same.

Runaways is a musical with dynamic force in the way it examines the destruction of the nuclear family and the many reasons why a youth might flee his home. What’s more, the show allows RLT’s Teens On Stage to actually be teens on stage, rather than assuming older roles, like last year’s Fiddler on the Roof. This opportunity provided the production with a power that leaped off the stage and involved us in the teenage characters’ difficult lives.

In an abandoned warehouse in Any City, USA, a band of runaway teenagers has come together in an unspoken pact, each with his own reason for his plight. These teens have knit themselves together in an effort to replace family in their broken lives. On a set that consists of metal scaffolding and a variety of discarded junk (boxes, crates, clothing scraps, an old oil drum) each teen has marked out his own private space, for “Home” and sleep. Together, this group tries to achieve what each individual has lost: a place of their own, and a core “family” to help get them through.

We first meet Hubbell (Zoe Allardice), a deaf girl who was forced to leave home because her folks did not accept her deafness. Hubbell’s only means of communication is sign language, and she signs each of the songs in this production, aided by her “translator,” Lorie (Kinsey Watson). There is also an interpreter for the deaf located upstage left, who signs most of the stories these teens tell.

Accompanying this troupe is a four-member band: piano (music director Yvonne Koch), guitar (Colton Hartzheim), bass (Alyssa Hartzheim), and drums (Conner Bass). In addition to playing the music for the songs in this show, the band provides a slightly disturbing, but appropriate, undercurrent of music. This can be counter to the music of the songs, which in some cases are upbeat or wistful, and other times even more disturbing than the undercurrent (“Minnesota Strip,” a song depicting teenage sex for money).

One of the chief aspects of this show was the superbly executed musical numbers by the cast. Even with the many solos in the production, the cast acted as a true ensemble. Each individual lent his voice to the whole so that the chorus of voices was tight, smooth, and thoroughly understandable. In this regard, the chorus managed to achieve that elusive quality of a master chorale: that each word was clear and clean, with crisp diction and complete understanding. Kudos to this cast and to music director Koch for bringing the libretto to stunning life.

The songs cover a nuanced spectrum concerning the teenage runaway: the opening, “Where Do People Go,” asks what happens to those who run; “We Are Not Strangers” illuminates that these teens are the boys and girls next door; and other songs tell of the undesirable circumstances under which these children must live. “Enterprise” (Diedre and Company) tells of the lengths these teens must go in order to get food and basic tools for existence. This is an in-your-face song, which not only gives the gritty truth but also aims blame at us, we who will not give to help these children. Eliya Watson leads this song of need and triumph. Other songs tell of the danger: “Lullaby for Luis” (Lidia, Luis, and company) tells of the drugs to be found in this place of despair, and the imminent danger of overdose. Lidia (Olivia Olsen) and Luis (Ruben Suarez) are bilingual, and speak as often in Spanish as they do in English. But this ability does little to advance these two; they are as desolate as the rest of these outcasts.

The overall effect of this intrepid cast and script was a tour de force production, which left us drained. One line from the script hung in the air, “Give me what I need to survive, and I will fight for my life.” Why must such situations as those portrayed in Runaways exist beyond the walls of the theater? We must be galvanized to correct these terrible wrongs; if we care, they will fight to live. If we care, if we lend a hand, then teen homelessness may be cured.

As a part of the drive to end homelessness, RLT is accepting donations for Haven House, a home for homeless teens. Donations of clothes, food, or other necessities may be given at any performance.

Runaways continues through Sunday, July 26. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.