Theater review by Raven Snook
History is a work in progress, and so is Folk Wandering, a breathtakingly ambitious musical that reframes our country’s past through present eyes. The brainchild of director Andrew Neisler (Clown Bar) and playwright Jaclyn Backhaus (whose Men on Boats put a sly feminist spin on the 1869 Powell expedition down the Colorado River), Pipeline Theatre Company's show is simultaneously intimate and epic as its multicultural cast conjures three tales from our collective American memory: a Lower East Side teen working in a shirtwaist factory in 1911; a desperate mother and daughter traversing the Dust Bowl in 1933; and a small-town greaser in 1955 who is mistaken for James Dean.
Even if you guess where these narratives will go, you won’t anticipate the emotional epiphanies they evoke as they spin facts into melodic fiction. The numbers—collectively crafted by Backhaus and nine other songwriters, and played by a spirited onstage band with assistance from the actors—are enthralling throughout and make up for flaws in the storytelling: a slow start, some forced humor, a meandering focus. Although the show occasionally slips into pretension, it gets at something deep about the way the past can hold us back (as physicalized by Carolyn Mraz’s glorious tchotchke-strewn set) or push us forward. Future generations may look at us; let’s improve their view.
A.R.T./New York Theaters (Off Broadway). Book and lyrics by Jaclyn Backhaus. Music and additional lyrics by various. Dir. Andrew Neisler. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.