Having seen a lot of musical theater, I often wonder what it is that makes certain musicals transcend time and leave audiences mesmerized long after they have left the theater?
Is it the creative synergy of an award-winning production team or brilliantly constructed eye-popping set design? Is it an authentic story that connects with the audience on a personal level, or catchy tunes that get stuck in your head? After being taken on the journey of the hypnotizing new musical, The Wrong Man, by multi-platinum songwriter, Ross Golan, I finally realized the answer to these questions.
A good musical can have its layers of pomp and circumstance peeled away and still leave its audience in awe if at its core it has a strong, compelling story, well-crafted performances, and moving score. This production, under the direction of Tony award-winning director Thomas Kail (Hamilton), is stripped of all the frills, but features a talented cast and head-bopping tunes that leave one eager to ride the of wave of love and tragedy again.
The premise of the sung-through show is tragic. Duran (Joshua Henry), a dreamer searching for himself and a life beyond Reno, Nevada is falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death for fatally shooting his pregnant lover Mariana (Ciara Renée).
The score, however, is so captivating that at times you lose track of the storyline. Golan has proven himself a more than accomplished songwriter penning music for artists from Ariana Grande to Nicki Minaj. But as a musical theater book writer he has more work to do. The book lacks character development and structure. I found myself at times forgetting this show wasn’t a concert but rather a play with fantastic music. The story often gets muddied somewhere in between the lyrical melody and Travis Wall’s (So You Think You Can Dance) delicate choreography.
Tony award-winning set designer Rachel Hauck (Hadestown) creates a minimal set where six chairs and two benches serve as interchangeable props for the cast. The purposefully curated bare layout is enhanced with on-stage seating intimately drawing the audience into the music unencumbered by obtrusive staging. The entire stage is used by the ensemble. The band, made up of six musicians, sit prominently on stage, offering energy, excitement, and creative flexibility to this production.
Joshua Henry’s portrayal of Duran is remarkable. We anxiously watch as Henry feels every note the band plays. His body powerfully radiates a myriad of emotions with each song. At times he seems overcome by the material, reaching a deeply personal place in this performance. As he passionately sings “Stay Positive” expressing his character’s emotional crisis trying to cope with loss, this earns him a mid-show standing ovation. Ciara Renée as Mariana nicely complements her lover’s voice during their duets. Together their music is the ultimate love language. Each actor, beyond their powerhouse vocals, depicts an intimate love affair so beautifully on stage.
Golan took over a decade to compose The Wrong Man. It began as a solo acoustic show he performed and later became a full concept album. This development time has served the show well, perfecting its melodies and dark emotions. It’s the right start for this first-time musical writer who offers a timely story of wrongful incarceration. “I’ve always thought it was weird that people tend not to believe someone who says they’re innocent, and I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of somebody who has to convince the listener that he’s not the one who did it,” Golan told Playbill.
I’d like to see this compelling story further developed and brought to Broadway. Golan’s music is worthy. With an improved book, this show can become an enormously influential piece. The show’s ultimate triumph lies in the tragedy of the narrative, something Broadway audiences should see.