“The Wrong Man,” a sung-through musical starring the spectacular Joshua Henry, may remind people of “Hamilton” in its catchy rap-inflected eclectic score and jerky hip hop choreography, but it is nearly the anti-“Hamilton” in its lack of real-world resonance.
Now, I don’t need a show to be socially conscious or rooted in history in order to enjoy it. But if you’re going to enlist a black actor to portray a man framed for murder, it seems like a missed opportunity that the creative team is presenting a story that has no more relevance than a folk tale.
Duran (Henry) impregnates Mariana (Ciara Renée), after he meets her at a bar in Reno, Nevada for a one-night stand. Her jealous ex-husband, called only Man in Black (Ryan Vasquez),kills her and frames Duran for the murder. Duran is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
“The Wrong Man” is written by Ross Golan, a pop songwriter responsible for a slew of number 1 hits (for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Lady Antebellum, Maroon 5, Pink, et al.) The musical began as a single song that Dolan has said he wrote in 2004 after he learned that Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in the state (which was subsequently made permanent by Gov. Pat Quinn) and Golan imagined “a guy who is in prison for something he didn’t do.” The one song grew to many, which Golan performed in L.A. in 2014 on a guitar, accompanied by a dancer and video projections.He turned that into an animated film, which was presented at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, and then a concept album released a few months later.
Many talented people have participated in the staging of the 24 songs that make up “That Wrong Man” at MCC Theater, including director Thomas Kail, and musical supervisor and orchestra Alex Lacamoire, who both won Tony Awards for “Hamilton.” (Three of the nine cast members, including Henry, are also alumni of “Hamilton.”) It’s choreographed by Travis Wall of “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Despite all the talent, “The Wrong Man” never really gels as a work of theater for me. It can feel like a 90-minute live music video – catchy, lively, superficial.
It reminds me in several ways of Paul Simon’s 1998 musical “The Capeman,” about a Puerto Rican gang member who commits murder. It, too, was a concept album before it was a staged musical, it too was put together by some prestige talents. The music was catchy. But the individual songs told the story rather than dramatized it. What remains most memorable to me about that musical is how unmemorable the supposedly central act was, the stabbing murder; it nearly didn’t register at all.
As with “The Capeman,” so with “The Wrong Man”: In place of involving drama or insight, there is…rhythm and melody.
This parallel struck me during the “scene” in “The Wrong Man” when the Man in Black frames Duran – in the song called “Stays Here”:
“He dropped the pistol in my lap,” Duran rap-sings, while the Man in Black drops the pistol in his lap, “And then he ran into the street and yelled.”
Then the Man in Black raps: “Police, that man just killed someone and now he’s after me.”
Duran continues: “I threw the gun like it was burning through my flesh and bone/I took off and I ran/And that’s the way the story goes.”
The song continues with Duran telling us that he rushed to Mariana’s home to find her stabbed to death; he called the paramedics; and then he ran away.
Ironically, the refrain of the song is: “They say all kinds of clichés here like, ‘what happens here stays here’”
The plot is so vague and far-fetched that it feels pointless to view it logically – to wonder, for example, why his fingerprints on a gun would implicate Duran in a stabbing death.
It is worth noting that “The Capeman” was based on the true story of Salvador Agron, and attempted an exploration of the social forces that shaped him. Goran had an almost endless number of recent true-life stories of wrongful imprisonment that could have inspired him, but he instead seems to take his guidance from country ballads and B movies. It is fitting that the music includes a synthetic whistling that sounds borrowed from the score of a spaghetti Western. There is even a direct allusion to Johnny Cash’s Folson Prison Blues: “It wasn’t me who shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.”
Golan makes a few weak stabs at social significance, such as a lyric in the song “Line Up” that suggests corruption — “the court appointed lawyer walked in, her arm around the chief — and the song “Free Duran” in which protesters lead a chant against the injustice of Duran’s conviction. But these don’t have much effect in a show that has such a melodramatic villain in the Man in Black (the name another allusion to Johnny Cash.) The character acknowledges his own evil repeatedly, especially in the song “When Evil Men Go On The Run”:
Y’all ready know I’ve been in prison for passing fraudulent checks while abating arrest for soliciting a minor for sex
I’m a cold, cold man
with little to no pity
I killed my pregnant wife and left for Mexico City
That there are any genuinely moving moments at all in “The Wrong Man” feels like a testament to Joshua Henry’s tremendous power as a performer. “The Wrong Man” is as close to a one-man show as is possible with a nine-member cast (Mariana and the Man in Black are the only other specific characters), and Henry makes the most of it. He turns what in other hands might have seemed simply an unending stream of self-pity – “ God, tell me why me? /Why oh why oh why oh why me?” – into cries from the heart. Henry’s role is so demanding physically – and I suspect emotionally — that Ryan Vasquez, normally portraying the Man in Black, is performing as Duran on Sunday matinees and occasionally one other day during the week.
My building up Joshua Henry should not be read as a put-down of the rest of the cast, all of whom are amazing dancers and great back-up singers. “The Wrong Man” is such an attractively staged entertainment that some theatergoers might not mind that it’s a concert with nothing to say.
Click on any photographs by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged.
The Wrong Man
Book, music and lyrics by Ross Golan
Directed by Thomas Kail, music supervision, vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, choreography by Travis Wall, scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Jennifer Moeller and Kristin Isola, lighting design by Betsy Adams, and sound design by Nevin Steinberg, hair and make-up design by Tommy Kurzman, music direction by Taylor Peckham,
Cast: Joshua Henry, Ciara Renée, Ryan Vasquez, Anoop Desai, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Malik Kitchen, Libby Lloyd, Amber Pickens, Kyle Robinson, Debbie Christine Tjong, and Julius Williams.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $56 – $132
The Wrong Man is on stage through November 17, 2019