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The Wrong Man

Theatre Review by David Hurst - October 9, 2019

Joshua Henry and the Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The most hotly anticipated off-Broadway musical of the season, Ross Golan's The Wrong Man at MCC, has a backstory perhaps even more compelling than the show itself. With direction by Tony-winner Thomas Kail (Hamilton and In The Heights), musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Tony & Grammy-winner Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, In The Heights and Dear Evan Hansen), choreography by Emmy-winner Travis Wall (So You Think You Can Dance), and three-time Tony-nominee Joshua Henry as its star, the anticipation is easy to understand. But are the hype and comparisons to Hamilton warranted? The short answer is The Wrong Man is an entertaining, politically correct, song-cycle that provides a showcase for the myriad talents of Joshua Henry and two of his co-stars, but it's not Hamilton. The long answer is, of course, more nuanced.

The backstory of how Ross Golan's The Wrong Man became a musical was detailed in an excellent piece by Lisa Fung last month in the Los Angeles Times. An award-winning singer-songwriter, the 39-year old Golan is best known today as a songwriter for music heavyweights like: Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Flo Rida, Maroon 5, PINK, Michael Bublé and Lady Antebellum. But back in 2004, before success knocked at his door, he released his first album, Reagan Baby, as a struggling singer. He was three years out of college. That same year he started writing songs for a follow-up album, one of which was "The Wrong Man" which became popular with fans despite the fact it wasn't on an album. Following the financial crash of 2008, Golan completed half of what would become The Wrong Man album and started playing it for people in their living rooms and kitchens.

It was at one of these living room parties theater producer Suzi Dietz heard The Wrong Man and suggested to Golan that he stage it as a musical theatre piece. In 2014 he did just that, at a tiny theatre in Los Feliz where it won three Ovation Awards. But Golan still hadn't recorded an album for The Wrong Man songs. When he finally went into a recording studio in L.A. for that purpose, he met Kurt Deutsch who specializes in theatrical projects for Warner/Chappell Music. Deutsch arranged for Golan to perform the piece for theater executives in New York and introduced him to director Kail, who was just starting work on the brilliant Fosse/Verdon series for FX. Kail then shared it with Lacamoire, and then Kail & Lacamoire shared it with Joshua Henry, and the results opened October 7 at MCC's Newman Mills Theater. And did I mention an animated version of The Wrong Man had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April?

Ryan Vasquez and Ciara Renée
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The show itself is easy to enjoy on the strength of its talented cast, as well as Golan's melodic and free-ranging score. But it's a staged song-cycle where a through-line has been imposed on the material and its plot frequently feels silly. That plot, a contemporary warning against one-night stands, goes something like this: an everyman named Duran (a hard-working Joshua Henry) meets a sexy bombshell named Mariana (the wonderful Ciara Renée) who immediately gets pregnant. Duran wants to start a life with Mariana but her ex boyfriend, the Man in Black (a sensational Ryan Vasquez, who plays Duran on Sundays), newly released from prison (thanks to being snitched on by Mariana) wants revenge. He stabs Mariana to death and then frames Duran for her murder, as well as the murder of a homeless man who was in the wrong place and the wrong time. Duran is railroaded to a quick conviction and given the death sentence. All logic, not to mention decades of crime-show writing, is thrown out the window as Duran gets a lethal injection in record time.

Golan's music, a generous mix of pop, hip-hop, rap and rock, is entertaining, especially as sung by Henry, Renée and Vasquez. But it's hard not to come away from The Wrong Man thinking Duran's story has been over-produced by Kail and his talented production team. Wall's choreography is as ‘artsy' as it is relentless, and exhaustion sets in before the shows tacked-on message about our society's unfair prosecution of minority's registers. The ensemble works hard and it's a pleasure to watch them. But it's a shame all their polished efforts are in service to a story that defies credulity. A prime example: after the Man in Black tracks down Duran to frame him, he shoots a homeless man in the back of the head in an alley and then drops the gun he used in the lap of Duran. But the Man in Black isn't wearing gloves so his prints would be on the gun as well as Duran's. And since he had a police record and Mariana had a restraining order against him, he would have been the prime suspect in the case. Nitpicking? Perhaps, but it's an easily fixable problem the production overlooks. More problematic is Golan's liberal coopting of the Las Vegas tagline, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" for The Wrong Man's setting of Reno, Nevada. There is no tagline, "what happens in Reno, stays in Reno," no matter how much Golan wishes there was. Perhaps it's easier to rhyme words with Reno instead of with Vegas, but why not just set the show in Vegas?

The Wrong Man
Through November 17
Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street and 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: