Then there’s the title itself, a blunt summing up of the universal nightmare of being accused unjustly of a crime, a topic that has recently become an obsessively popular subject for podcasts and streaming fare. “The Wrong Man” is also the name of a 1956 Alfred Hitchcock movie about such a miscarriage of justice, and whenever I try to watch it, I find myself having to look away as poor, decent Henry Fonda is railroaded once again.
So I was fully prepared to spend the 90 minutes of Golan’s variation on this theme — staged by Thomas Kail, no less, the director of the almighty “Hamilton” — with my fingernails buried into my palms. It was also encouraging to know that the title character, a love-seeking loser in Reno, Nevada, would be played by Joshua Henry, a Tony nominee as Billy Bigelow in the 2018 revival of “Carousel” and a performer of searing emotional focus.
For better or worse, though, my fists soon unclenched themselves. It’s not that “The Wrong Man” strays from the spine-tingling elements it establishes at its beginning. On the contrary, it hews to them with an unchanging insistence that ultimately drains them of their power. The show keeps reiterating its central premise, without grounding a dark conceit with the details that would give it gooseflesh-and-blood existence.
Golan is a successful pop composer who has delivered hits for the likes of Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber, as well as a preeminent podcaster on the art of songwriting. “The Wrong Man” was developed as a concept album, which Golan began working on in 2005 but was released only this summer.
Stage adaptations of concept albums are hardly without precedent. Think of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” or, more recently, “Hadestown,” the current Broadway blockbuster by Anais Mitchell.
Yet unlike those shows, “The Wrong Man” feels like a repetitive internal monologue, one that never leaves its protagonist’s aching head to freely roam the world. And there’s little originality or variety in our hero’s thought patterns.
Duran, the show’s title character, is first presented to us as a sort of Everyscapegoat, close kin to that ultimate persecuted figure, Joseph K., of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” (No race is specified for the role of Duran, but the fact that Henry is black inevitably brings to mind recent cases of wrongful convictions of people of color.)
Duran’s opening number, sung with bravura intensity that Henry sustains throughout, asks knotty musical questions of identity like, “What if I’m based on an untrue story?” and promises “an existential dive into my soul.”
The music, performed by an onstage band and tautly orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire (“Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen”), strikes resonant chords of anxiety here. And Travis Wall’s choreography, which shuffles the nine-member cast as if it were a deck of cards, emphasizes the notion of randomness, the sense that what happens here might happen to anyone.
Perversely enough, it’s when the plot takes over that the show’s grip slackens. Duran, the son of an abusive casino worker, is working in (unspecified) “middle management” in Reno and recovering from heartbreak.
In the fine tradition of film-noir saps, he hits the bars and runs smack into a femme fatale. That’s Mariana (the slinky-voiced Ciara Renée), who “looks for men in designer threads like they’re the Nevada lotto.” She and Duran adjourn posthaste to her place for great sex.
Alas, Mariana turns out to have an estranged homicidal husband (a nastily smiling Ryan Vasquez, identified as Man in Black), who is none too happy to learn that his ex is pregnant by Duran. Soon enough, Duran finds himself with blood on his hands, from not one but two corpses, and not long after that, on death row.
I am really not committing spoilers by telling you this. Golan’s libretto has no room for mystery or ambiguity, which perhaps suits a story about the arbitrariness of cruel fate. But for us to care in more than an abstract way, we need to feel that Duran, Mariana and that mean old Man in Black are more than archetypes.
When Duran, while waiting for Mariana to slip into something more comfortable on their first night together, notes that she “still had DVDs and they were alphabetized,” I felt like cheering. At last, here was a specific rather than generic bit of characterization.
Very few similar details followed. Mostly, the lyrics are of a one-size-fits-all nature: “Some good people do bad things,” or “I have a history of deleting my past and then repeating it back.” Duran, vainly asserting his innocence, sings: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, sure/But I’m not the one lying, I only told the truth, sir.”
Acts of sex and violence are rendered in standard-issue hall-of-mirrors ballets, usually performed by several sets of couples. An appropriate midnight-of-the-soul atmosphere for these pas de deux is summoned by Rachel Hauck’s stark set and Betsy Adams’ claustrophobic lighting.
Golan’s score is easy to listen to, spiced with hooks that dig into the memory. (I can still hear Renée wailing, “Some good people, good people do bad things.”) And there is one terrific number, “Stay Positive,” in which Duran on the lam feels “someone else’s heart” in his chest “beating, beating, beating.”
My own pulse rate accelerated during that song. It soon slowed again, though, as I went back to pondering the unfortunate fitness of one of the show’s repeated lyrics: “They say all kinds of clichés here/Like what happens here stays here.”
“The Wrong Man”
Through Nov. 17 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, Manhattan; 646-506-9393, mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Book, music and lyrics by Ross Golan; directed by Thomas Kail; music supervision, vocal arrangements and orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire; choreography by Travis Wall; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Jennifer Moeller and Kristin Isola; lighting by Betsy Adams; sound by Nevin Steinberg; hair and makeup by Tommy Kurzman; music direction by Taylor Peckham; music coordinator, Michael Aarons; production stage manager, Jason Pacella; production manager, Steve Rosenberg; general manager, Beth Dembrow; artistic producer, Jessica Chase. Presented by MCC Theater, Bob LuPone, Bernie Telsey, Will Cantler, artistic directors, Blake West, executive director.
Cast: Anoop Desai, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Joshua Henry, Malik Kitchen, Libby Lloyd, Ciara Renée, Kyle Robinson, Debbie Christine Tjong and Ryan Vasquez.
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