By Marilyn Lester
“A guy walks into a bar…” …opening words for many a joke. But in the new hip-hop/rap musical by Ross Golan, The Wrong Man, the joke’s on the eponymous leading character whose life takes a nosedive into chilling tragedy when he walks into that bar. With the tag line, “the wrong man meets the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the plot, though not especially groundbreaking, would warm the heart of any Greek tragedian. And although The Wrong Man may not be, like Oedipus Rex, truly epic storytelling, it’s what surrounds this basic tale that raises the production from the pedestrian into the realm of dazzling theater. There is unmistakably genius here, and it comes from spot-on casting and absolutely stunning staging.
The Wrong Man owes the source of its brilliance to the dynamic, inventive showmanship of Tony-winning director Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and choreographer Travis Wall. Wall’s elegant and athletic choreography, coupled with Kail’s strategic, stylized movement of the ensemble, create a sinuous, unbroken flow of ineffable beauty, executed by the superb troupe of Anoop Desai, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Malik Kitchen, Libby Lloyd, Amber Pickens, Kyle Robinson, Debbie Christine Tjong, and Julius Williams. Just watching these actors move and execute this extraordinary fluid tableau of physicality is wholly a work of art on its own.
Leading this solid company of vigorously magnificent singer-actor-dancers is the compelling Joshua Henry. His raw energy and commitment to his role elevates the character of the hapless Everyman, Duran, whose life it is that spirals rapidly out of control. And make no mistake; the onus of carrying the tale of this wrong man is his, for the property is almost a one-man show. Henry’s in constant motion singing and moving for 90 minutes, yet his strength and power and talent never falters––he has the audience in the proverbial palm of his hand from start to finish. Supporting cast members Ciara Renée as Mariana, the wrong woman, and Ryan Vasquez as the evil Man in Black, form a strong triangle of talent as the story unfolds.
The Wrong Man originally began as a concept album written about 15 years ago––the brainchild of multi-platinum songwriter Golan, who has written hits for the likes of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Pink, Michael Buble, Idina Menzel and many more. Since the work is essentially an opera, sung in the recitative of rap, book and lyrics are one. The story, set in Reno, Nevada, follows Duran, a young man looking for love and stability who meets a woman in a bar, has a one-night stand with her and is framed for her murder by her jealous husband. The innocent Duran is convicted and sentenced to death. Yet while the lyrics are literate and poetic, they are not especially compelling and fall short of eliciting strong emotional responses.
The most potentially gripping aspect of the story is the wrongful imprisonment of the protagonist. But where is the moral outrage about that turn of events (especially casting a Black actor in the role of Duran)? Golan’s lyrics simply don’t pack enough punch to move beyond reportage. Wrongful imprisonment is a large problem in the US criminal justice system. When the gut-wrenching, award-winning play The Exonerated debuted in 2002 it not only exposed this issue but also created a strong sustained emotional response to it. When They See Us, the 2019 Ava DuVernay film about the five exonerated men wrongfully convicted and sentenced in the infamous 1989 Central Park rape case was released, it too caused outrage over the issue of wrongful convictions. Golan, who admits to being politically minded, missed an opportunity to make The Wrong Man more than just another sob story about an unfortunate guy with bad luck––and thus missed the chance to create a truly powerful, meaningful theatrical experience of awareness and social commentary.
Music supervisor Alex Lacamoire has taken Golan’s music, which has melodic elements rooted in several genres, including country and folk, and given life to what can be the deadly rhythmic blandness of much rap. His vocal arrangements and orchestrations elevate The Wrong Man and help it achieve at least the sum of its parts. Conductor, music director and keyboardist Taylor Peckham, drummer Jamie Eblen and bassist (upright and stringed) Alex Eckhardt are joined in creating a pleasing tonality with the guitars and stringed instruments of Dillon Kondor and Vin Landolfi.
Exquisite and creative lighting design by Betsy Adams creates a numinous environment in which the action unfolds. Other credits for superb technical work got to Rachel Hauck, scenic design; Jennifer Moeller and Kristin Isola, costume design; and Nevin Steinberg, sound design.
Photos: Matthew Murphy
The Wrong Man is playing at the The Newman Mills Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street, NYC through November 17. For more information and tickets, go to www.mcctheater.org or call 212-727-7722