Nomadland and Passing Through: Discovering America by van and by foot, on stage and on screen.

In both the film “Nomadland,” nominated for six Academy Awards, and the play “Passing Through,” the first musical that Goodspeed is presenting virtually,  a  lone character travels through the country meeting strangers and discovering America.  Both are based on true stories, adapted from non-fiction books, both of which were published in 2017. They both say something about America that you don’t hear much on the news these days.

Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” is a work of journalism that explores the community of modern-day American nomads, generally older, who never recovered from the Great Recession of 2008, and now live out of their vans or RVs while traveling for seasonal employment in beet fields and campgrounds and Amazon warehouses. Some of the individuals Bruder profiles in the book perform as themselves in Chloé Zhao’s movie. The main character, Fern, is fictional, and portrayed by the Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning (and now once again Oscar-nominated) actress Frances McDormand, but her story is based on a surreal but actual turn of events. After United States Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada in 2011, the town basically shut down as well. Before the film begins, Fern has lost her job, her house and then her husband — and starts living (and traveling) in her van.
“Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time” is a memoir by Andrew Forsthoefel, who, at the age of 23, spent a year walking from Philadelphia to California.
Songwriter Brett Ryback and librettist Eric Ulloa turned “Waiting to Listen” into “Passing Through,” which received its first full stage production, with a cast of 11 and a five-piece band, at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in 2019, when it was filmed for archival purposes. That recording is what is now available, for $25, until April 4th – the first of the theater’s new virtual program Goodspeed On Demand.

Both “Nomadland” and “Passing Through” frankly tested my patience — the musical more than the movie – not so much because of the running times, although they’re both long (“Nomadland” is 110 minutes, “Passing Through,” 140), but because they are episodic and random-feeling by design.

“Nomadland” doesn’t need yet another endorsement, but, yes, it won me over. So eventually did “Passing Through,” although I’m hoping the creative team will continue to work on it.

Andrew (Max Chernin), a recent college graduate living with his mother in a Philadelphia suburb,   itches to go on an epic journey across America – at first, we think (thanks to a song with the wonderful title “Ambitions in E Major”), because of his resistance to the path of “money or accumulation or achievement” that his classmates have already set upon.  As he says to his mother (Garrett Long): “I’m walking across the country on foot to seek out answers from people along the way, hoping to understand life a little better“ – a line that, like a number of others, is so on the nose it’s either a deliberate effort to reveal the character’s gawky earnestness or an example of the creative team’s underdeveloped ear for human speech. (There’s certainly plenty of evidence that Andrew is gawky: He sets out on his journey wearing a sign “Walking for Answers” around his neck, which halfway through he changes to “Walking to Listen.”)

We soon learn Andrew has a parallel motive – to escape, or make peace with, his feelings about his father (Jim Stanek), who abandoned the family when Andrew was 14.

Over the next two plus hours and 19 musical numbers, Andrew encounters a middle aged couple who themselves traveled the world in their youth (“The Song of the Soul”), a racist preacher, an all-female prison gang (“All Over Again”), Karie (Celeste Rose), a 26-year-old widow of an Iraqi war veteran (“Alone”),  Miss Emma (Jennifer Leigh Warren), a 102-year-old great great grandmother who witnessed a lynching in her youth (“Keep on Walking”), an arthritic rancher (“These Days Are Gone”), a Mexican couple crossing the border (“De Nuevo”) a bitter young Native American – and more.

Some of the scenes and songs are touching; all are well acted.

Some are too obvious. Before Andrew sets out on his trip, his mother has put a butter knife in his backpack, so that he can protect himself, which he finds absurd; nevertheless, on his first encounter on the road, spotting a group of three men who he fears will menace him, he brandishes the butter knife, and declaims: “I don’t want any trouble!”

“And I’m not looking to butter my toast, so I don’t know why the hell you’re pointing that at me,” one of the men says.

This is a rewrite of the actual event, as Forsthoefel recounts it in his book, in which his mother’s landlord (not his mother) gave him a pocket knife (not a butter knife) for protection, and he thinks about taking it out (but did not) when he encounters three explicitly Latino men – who (like the three men of non-specific ethnicity in the musical) turn out to be hospitable, offering him food and shelter.

The silly musical comedy version of this encounter is hardly a sin, but what it misses is Forsthoefel’s self-aware (if, yes, overly earnest) analysis of  this incident as reflecting race and class in America, and the ways his “whiteness” affects his status and perceptions. I’m not sure whether this could be dramatized in this scene, but it seems worth trying to. (The musical does briefly offer us Andrew’s private reaction after the fact to the  preacher’s racism.)

If the score initially seems full of pleasant if not especially memorable ballads, it took me a while to catch onto Brett Ryback’s clever and increasingly tuneful approach: His songs often reflect the region that Andrew is visiting: prison blues, gospel and soul in the South; twangy country in Texas; a Spanish song at the Southwest border; even a Navajo prayer. (Maybe even that first song from the graduates is a pastiche of a New England college song; I couldn’t tell.)

Like the extraordinary sunsets and landscapes in “Nomadland,”   Ryback’s score subtly buttresses my main takeaway from both works.   As varied as America the country is, so are the people who inhabit it. But, as both Fern and Andrew discover, the people they encounter can be difficult or kind (mostly kind), resilient or defeated (mostly resilient), but none are so different that they don’t want to connect.


Passing Through
Goodspeed Musicals on Demand
Through April 4
Directed by Igor Goldin, Choreographed by Marcos Santana, with Scenic Design by Adam Koch, Costume Design by Tracy Christensen, Lighting Design by Cory Pattak, Music Direction by Matt Meckes, Sound Design by Jay Hilton,and Casting by Paul Hardt
Cast: Max Chernin as Andrew, Jim Stanek as Andrew’s Dad, Garrett Long as Andrew’s Mom, Celeste Rose as Karie, Jennifer Leigh Warren as Miss Emma and The Professor, Joan Almedilla, Reed Armstrong, Ryan Duncan,Linedy Genao, Charles Gray and Mary Jo Mecca

“Nomadland” is on Hulu.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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