Joshua Henry (center) and the cast of MCC Theater’s ‘The Wrong Man.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Bobby McGuire
With a score by a multi-platinum songwriter, star turn by one of Broadway’s most exciting leading men, dances by a noted choreographic wunderkind, not to mention musical and stage direction by the brainpower behind Hamilton, conventional wisdom would say that The Wrong Man would be a sure bet. But like many a gambler’s hand in Reno (where the show is set), this protracted murder ballad delivers the theatrical equivalent of a push at the blackjack table – neither win nor bust.
There’s a lot to like and love on stage at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in The Wrong Man. For the eyes, there’s director Thomas Kail’s signature fluid staging and choreographer Travis Wall’s innovative choreography. For the ears, there’s Ross Golan’s hook-heavy score augmented by Alex Lacamoire’s layered vocal arrangements. For the soul, there’s the kind of social injustice story that’s resonated on the small screen in Making a Murderer and When They See Us brought to life on stage by a top-flight cast.
Told in flashback through mostly first-person stream of consciousness, The Wrong Man is the story of Duran (the superb Joshua Henry, Carousel), a hapless middle management employee who, on the rebound, meets Mariana, (played with seductive pathos by Ciara Renée, Tick, Tick… Boom!), the wrong woman in the wrong place. It also turns out to be the wrong time to start up a relationship. Mariana’s psychotic ex (named only “The Man in Black” and played to scene-stealing perfection by Ryan Vasquez) is out of prison and looking to settle a grudge. In a pair of events, he murders Mariana and a stranger then pins the spree on Duran. After being on the lam, Duran ends up the victim of broad-brush justice and is sentenced to death by lethal injection. Spoiler alert: there’s no happy ending.
So, why isn’t The Wrong Man the right fit for the stage? Call it a case of too much of a good thing, or the whole not equaling the sum of its parts. This metaphor-heavy show is like an aggregate of beautiful trees that just can’t seem to make a forest. Still, there is so much to admire in this near-miss musical.
Making his long-overdue return to Off-Broadway, choreographer Travis Wall dominates the visual production with a sophisticated brand of concert dance that earned him two Emmy Awards for his work on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. Equally adept as a storyteller, Mr. Wall provides one of the evening’s highlights—an apache dance that shows one of the murders. Similarly, Mr. Kail lithely moves his ensemble of nine around designer Rachel Hauk’s barebones set, immediately evoking any number of locales and moods. Performing triple-duty as musical director, vocal arranger and orchestrator, Alex Lacamoire (with the help of Nevin Steinberg’s spot-on sound design) once again proves himself a preeminent master of the pop musical.
At the center of the action, as protagonist Duran, Joshua Henry, in a spectacular turn of heavy-lifting, drives most of the action and carries the lion’s share of the evening’s emotional burden. Treading familiar ground here, having played real-life death row inmate Haywood Patterson nearly a decade ago in The Scottsboro Boys, Mr. Henry once again shows his broad range of acting chops while using his brilliant baritone to interpret composer Ross Golan’s songs.
And what songs they are. As a songsmith, few can touch Mr. Golan’s versatility. It’s what’s drawn top artists as diverse as Ariana Grande, Lady Antebellum, Michael Bublé, and Nicki Minaj to record his music. Armed with distinct pop sensibilities, Mr. Golan’s score is heavy on hooks and musical references. His Santana-inspired “When Evil Men Go On the Run” almost defies the audience not to hum along. As a lyricist, he’s able to get into characters’ heads while tripping the listeners’ ears with often clever use of internal rhymes. Were only his skills as a book writer on the same par.
The central flaw with The Wrong Man is that while it existed in the medium of music as a song cycle turned concept album, the storytelling worked. As a theater piece, gaps need to be bridged by a book to make the visual and musical storytelling unified. The gaps remain onstage in The Wrong Man, and their presence is pervasive throughout the evening.
It’s been a decade since Mr. Golan started working on The Wrong Man. In that time, if you wanted to hear the piece you needed to experience it live. For ten years before recording this work earlier this year, Mr. Golan performed his piece mostly solo to broad acclaim in venues that ranged from bars to living rooms. Perhaps they were the right stages for The Wrong Man. For now, as performed, it’s the right story in the wrong place.
The Wrong Man
Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd Street
New York, NY
Through November 17
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EDGE Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.