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Theatre in Review: The Wrong Man (MCC Theater)

Ciara Renée, Joshua Henry. Matthew Murphy.

The Wrong Man contains a promise and a confirmation. The former comes from Ross Golan, author of the musical's book and score. A pop music industry insider who has written for the likes of Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, he displays a knack for theatre songs that is highly usual in someone with his background. The story of a working stiff who gets caught up in the crossfire between warring lovers and pays the ultimate price, The Wrong Man has one of the most listenable, infectious scores of recent seasons. A distinctive fusion of smooth jazz, Latin, funk, and hip-hop, the music casts a consistently seductive mood, aided by Alex Lacamoire's arrangements and orchestrations for keyboard, guitars, bass, and drums. As a lyricist, Golan is unhappily fond of imperfect rhymes -- like "hurt/first" and "armada/Nevada" to name two examples -- but, then again, the words are filled with striking images. The protagonist, Duran, recalls his father "beat Mom like a pinata," telling all you need to know about his terrible childhood. His new lover is "a former cocktail waitress who drinks J&B/She looks thirty as a dirty blonde but was born a brunette and yet/That incredible body is as hot as it gets." Mariana, the lady in question, notes, "My mama told me she wasn't sure who my dad was/And that every man's like the last one/Still, I always wanted a husband/Married the third guy by the time I turned twenty-seven." Even when working in a pop vernacular, Golan creates an effectively fatalistic, noirish atmosphere.

Indeed, Duran has clawed his way up from nothing to a middle-management position, but when it comes to women, he has the luck of a James M. Cain protagonist. (A previous lover abandons him when they run into money troubles, taking her two children from her previous marriage with her.) Duran and Mariana have an epic night of sex, but she is haunted by her cheating, abusive husband, whose taste for underage girls has gotten him in trouble with the law. A few weeks after their hot date, Mariana contacts Duran, informs him that she is almost certainly pregnant by him and her husband is coming for him. Duran's humdrum life suddenly becomes a nightmare of pursuit and imprisonment, with his life hanging in the balance.

The confirmation mentioned earlier comes in the performance of Joshua Henry, who here firmly establishes his place in the upper tier of musical theatre leading men. The role of Duran is a marathon workout, paced by one highly emotional number after another. In addition to providing the powerful vocals that made so memorable his appearances in Carousel and Shuffle Along, he dominates the stage, driving the story with his energy and natural charisma: It's the moment when a gifted young leading man can legitimately be called a star. Providing stellar support is Ciara Renée, who makes Mariana sexy and regretful and terrified all at once. As Mariana's psychopathic husband, known only as The Man in Black, Ryan Vasquez is the kind of character you never want to meet in a dark alley, as Duran so unhappily does. Armed with a smile like a gash from a knife and a nonchalant way of detailing his misdeeds, he is especially powerful in the driving, sardonic "When Evil Men Go on the Run."

Other standouts in the score include the prologue, with its hauntingly repetitive refrain; "Sees Me for Me," a lament for the painfully lonely Duran; and "Stay Positive," in which Duran, now on the run, struggles to keep his spirits up. Just about every number, however, benefits from a compelling melody, an especially good thing because, in the latter scenes, set in prison, the action begins to stall. It's at this point that one starts to notice that the characters are, all told, alarmingly thin and the plot has some rather obvious holes. Duran is framed for a crime that he didn't commit, but it's hard to believe that the deck is so heavily stacked against him. (It is implicit, I suppose, that part of Duran's problem is he is black and, therefore, a natural object of suspicion, but The Wrong Man doesn't really dabble in racial politics.) A "Free Duran" movement is struck up, but the show is fuzzy on the details, never explaining its origins or its supporters. If Golan is a strikingly talented composer, he has some distance to go as a storyteller; The Wrong Man functions more as a song cycle than a fully worked out musical drama. During the bleak final scenes, it also becomes evident that the Thomas Kail's staging and Travis Wall's choreography may be a bit too clean and elegantly conceived for this fundamentally ugly tale of passion and revenge. Some additional blood and sweat may be wanted.

Still, Rachel Hauck's immaculate set, which puts the audience on three sides and covers the wall with lines of LED tape -- the lighting, alternately stark and loaded with saturated color, is by Betsy Adams -- is an attractive, flexible concept. Nevin Steinberg's sound design is a blessedly clear melding of voices and instruments. The costume designers, Jennifer Moeller and Kristin Isola, dress the cast in casual wear that allow them to move fluidly.

Even if it isn't totally satisfying, The Wrong Man boasts a score that you'll want to know about; at a time when many musicals sound like so many strung-together recitatives, it's exciting to encounter a songwriter who supplies so many gorgeous and dramatically workable themes. It's also a thrill to see Henry ascending to a role fully commensurate with his gifts. This is the kind of show for which MCC exists, and cheers to the company for supporting it in such stellar fashion. -- David Barbour

(25 October 2019)

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