REVIEW: Ross Golan’s “The Wrong Man” at MCC Theater
It’s there in the title. It’s sung within the first minutes of the show. And yet, nothing can quite prepare you for that sinking feeling, the pit in your stomach, the knots developing as you watch someone be accused of a crime he did not commit.
This buoyantly rendered original new noir musical is the brain child of multi-platinum pop music singer, songwriter, and producer Ross Golan who has penned songs for an impressive roster of recording artists ranging from Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande, to Michael Bublé, Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, Lady Antebellum, Flo Rida, and Pink, among others, and provides the music, lyrics, and book.
Inspired by the stunning revelations of innocent men on death row in Mr. Golan’s home state of Illinois, “The Wrong Man” began as a single song he wrote in 2005, developed into a concept album that he performed as a one man show in 2014, and adapted into an animated film released in April.
This new stage iteration under the helm of director Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”, “Fosse/Verdon”) expands the material and production to include three characters and a diverse six-person ensemble, while maintaining the intimacy and focus of the storytelling and its sadly-relevant social justice message.
Chance, good, and evil are all themes in this heavily thematic, and schematic, musical. Three-time Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry (“Carousel”, “Shuffle Along”) stars as Duran, a lonely and good-hearted but down-on-his-luck man just scraping by in Reno, Nevada. A one-night-stand with the alluring Mariana (Ciara Renée, “Pippin”) sets in motion a murderous plot at the hands of her ex-husband, the opaquely named “Man in Black” (Ryan Vasquez, “Hamilton”) that leaves Duran a fugitive on the run, innocent but perfectly framed.
Structured as a song cycle—there is no dialogue—Mr. Kail works his magic bringing the story to life despite the twin challenges of its bluntly narrative and gently poetic lyrics. He is aided in the task by the kinetic choreography of Emmy Award winner Travis Wall (“So You Think You Can Dance”) who conjures evocative emotions, settings, and scenes—most memorably a squabble between Mariana and the Man in Black—with his contemporary movement.
In an intimate, concert-like atmosphere—the audience at the 245-seat Newman Mills Theater is seated in a u-shape—the story unfolds on a mostly bare stage with two wood benches and nine metal chairs as furniture, and a four-piece band in plain sight, sounding ten times their size (orchestrations and arrangements by Alex Lacamoire).
Coming as no surprise given his pedigree and outsider status, Mr. Golan has crafted the most authentic pop music score for a musical in recent memory (a solo concept album featuring his vocals was released in July).
Unlike other “pop” musicals that borrow the influence of what’s on the radio to infuse songs that are otherwise canonically musical theatre, the songs of “The Wrong Man” are pop songs first, not pastiche—more “The Who’s Tommy” or “American Idiot”, existing rock albums adopted for the stage, and less “Hamilton” or “In the Heights”, musicals that happen to use hip-hop.
“The Wrong Man” urgently pierces musical theatre conventions to emerge as something entirely new, while also, ironically, relying on some old theatrical and dramatic conventions.
The story is not primarily shown but rather told as a memory, mostly by Duran, evoking choral traditions of yore. In a move that would make Agnes de Mille smile, each of the three principal characters has a dancing analogue on stage—a technique pioneered with “Oklahoma!” in 1943 but rarely seen anymore.
The Man in Black is scarcely given a backstory, another choice that belies the tendency of contemporary drama. The bad guy is just a bad guy. No explaining. No justification. He doesn’t even have a name. He’s just evil. And that’s that.
At times, “The Wrong Man” feels rhythmically rote, each song neatly punctuating a single plot point—as if songs on an album, instead of an integrated piece of musical theatre. And the text suffers for a lack of specificity. Yet it is a testament to the strength of Mr. Kail’s vision—and the work of Mr. Wall and the extraordinary dancing ensemble—that the story remains engaging, if undercooked.
Indeed, “The Wrong Man” soars due its outstanding and unconventional score; its fluid, smart, and only occasionally overwrought employment of movement; and a titanic performance at the center. Mr. Henry is, as always, seductively magnetic and emotionally generous. His performance of “Stay Positive”—Duran’s big number—gave me literal chills and goosebumps, forming as transcendent and transporting a musical moment as any I have ever experienced in the theatre.
There is already buzz about a Broadway transfer, and that might be the right move for “The Wrong Man”.
Bottom Line: Joshua Henry stars in “The Wrong Man”, a buoyantly rendered original new noir musical about a man falsely accused of murder that is the brain child of multi-platinum pop music singer, songwriter, and producer Ross Golan. A narrative song-cycle set in an intimate, concert-like atmosphere, this musical gets rhythmically rote, and suffers for a lack of specificity, but is nevertheless saved by a great score, fluid choreography, and Mr. Henry’s titanic performance.
“The Wrong Man”
The Newman Mills Theater
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: October 9, 2019
Final Performance: November 17, 2019