October 26, 2019

"The Wrong Man" Doesn't Do Enough Right

Joshua Henry has a magnificently supple voice that can do almost anything and I’d be happy to listen to him sing for hours on end. But he’s not the right man to play the lead in The Wrong Man, the new musical by singer-songwriter Ross Golan that has recently been extended at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through Nov. 24.

Golan, who has worked with such disparate performers as James Taylor, Ariana Grande and Snoop Dogg (click here to read more about him) has created an appealing sung-through score that mixes country, soul and hip-hop. But he also wrote the book and lyrics and they tell the less satisfying and far more predictable story of a born-to-be-a-loser guy named Duran who gets framed for some murders he didn’t commit.

The key part of that description is “born-to-be-a-loser.” Because Henry is, as the 100-watt grin he beams at the curtain call clearly demonstrates, innately winning. I’m not throwing shade on Henry who is a terrific actor and brought tears to my eyes in some moments but I couldn’t help wondering what someone less concerned with making his audience love him, someone like Raúl Esparza or Leslie Odom Jr., might have done with the role.

But the whole production is softer and gentler than Golan’s tougher-minded concept album, which he’s turned into a musical with the help of director Thomas Kail. But even though Kail helped craft Hamilton into the cultural juggernaut that it is, I’m not sure he's the right man for this show either.

Kail employs many of the elements—a simple set, kinetic choreography, even some of the same ensemble members—that he used for Hamilton but both he and Golan fail to create any distinctive characteristics that might make you really care about the three people around whom this show revolves.

Duran and Mariana, the woman he falls hard for after a one-night stand, are one-note characters who do the same thing over and over: yearn for a better life. Meanwhile, Mariana’s estranged husband couldn’t be more of a stock villain if he wore a stovepipe hat and twirled a moustache.

The actors do what they can. Ciara Renée is appropriately sexy and sultry-voiced as Mariana. Ryan Vasquez, who also alternates as Duran at some performances, sings the hell out of the role of the husband, who doesn’t even get a name but is identified only as the Man in Black.

And Henry, who seems to have buffed up for the role (I hope it's not too sexist to say that he looks great in his muscle shirts) is onstage nearly all of the show’s 90-minutes and is singing full out for 90 percent of that time.

These three principals divvy up 24 songs, whose lyrics are dense and hard to follow even when well enunciated. And although I liked a lot of the music, which is played here by a jamming onstage band, I wish the songs did less narrating of what the characters are doing and more expressing of the emotions they are experiencing.

That heavy lifting is left to choreographer Travis Wall, a multiple Emmy winner for the emotive dances he created on the TV dance competition show “So You Think You Can Dance (click here to read more about him)” and to lighting designer Betsy Adams, who has filled the theater with strips of neon mood lights. Both of them, along with the six-member ensemble, work far harder than they should have to.

Months before the show opened, pundits who like to think themselves in the know (click here to read one of them) were predicting that The Wrong Man would move to Broadway and take all the top awards.  And the show still has its partisans (click here to read one of them). Alas, I think they’re wrong.

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