Thursday, October 24, 2019

97 (2019-2020): Review: THE WRONG MAN (seen October 23, 2019)

"Folsom Prison Blues"

As The Wrong Man, a new musical at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, got under way last night and the lead character, Duran, began singing, I suddenly had the feeling I was literally in the presence of the wrong man. I’d come with the expectation that Duran was being played by Joshua Henry, the powerful, African-American star who rocked the rafters as Billy Bigelow in the recent revival of Carousel. Ryan Vasquez, the actor playing Duran, however, is not black, and it wasn’t until the show was over that I realized what had happened. 
Ryan Vasquez, Ciara Renee. All photos: Matthew Murphy.
Somehow, I’d completely overlooked the news (buried under the program’s cast list and noted on small cards in a corner of the lobby) that Vasquez (Hamilton), who usually plays the Man in Black, was covering Duran at six performances (the next and last will be October 27), while Anoop Desai, normally in the ensemble, was taking over the Man in Black at those same shows. It took me a little while to swallow my disappointment, still not entirely dissipated, and give myself over to Vasquez’s fine (but not extraordinary) performance. Desai is excellent in the role Vasquez normally plays.
Joshua Henry and company. 
The Wrong Man is not a musicalization of the realistic, b/w, Alfred Hitchcock movie of 1956, based on a true story, starring Henry Fonda as a Queens, NY, man caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare after being wrongly convicted of robbery. The show, by pop songwriter Ross Golan, and directed by Thomas Kail of Hamilton fame, is instead based on an animated film and, later, concept album, inspired by Illinois governor George Ryan’s 2004 moratorium on the death penalty.
Ryan Vasquez, Kyle Robinson, Tilly Evans-Krueger.
 Golan’s premise concerns a fictional murder for which a Reno, NV, man is wrongly accused. Avoiding a real event for a made-up, stereotypical one weakens the miscarriage of justice theme, which Hitchcock’s film addresses. Apart from their titles and mutual focus on someone arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, nothing else ties together these tales of wronged men. 
Ciara Renee, Joshua Henry.
Golan’s show, for which he wrote the music, lyrics, and book—even though 99% of the book is in the sung-through lyrics—is a minimalist exercise in theatrical style. It is, indeed, more style, than substance. The overly wide expanse of the Wilson stage (relative to its shallow auditorium) has been turned by designer Rachel Hauck into three walls lined with horizontal LED lighting strips, with bleacher seating at either side, helpfully narrowing the performing area between them.
Ryan Vasquez and company.
A glass-enclosed booth up center—suggestive of a recording studio—houses percussionist Jamie Eblen, with the other musicians (keyboard, two guitars, and bass) visible nearby. Chairs, stools, and a pair of wooden benches serve for all scenic uses, with barely any hand props brought into play. A hand, for example, serves as a knife or gun.   
Joshua Henry.
Jennifer Moeller and Kristin Isola have costumed everyone (mostly slacks and t-shirts) in shades of black and gray, requiring Betsy Small to introduce the necessary color in her creative, hyperactive, lighting design. 

Duran narrates his story in direct address, with songs written largely to an insistent, driving beat, combining jazz, pop rock, and hip-hop rhythms (think Hamilton). He either stands alone in a spotlight or engages with a dynamic ensemble of strikingly distinctive dancer-singers who undertake multiple parts. Their names are Tilly Evans-Krueger, Malik Kitchen, Libby Lloyd, Kyle Robinson, and Debbie Christine Tjong. Ciara Renée (Big Fish), who plays the murdered femme fatale, Mariana, joins the ensemble when not otherwise engaged, as does Desai, whose main job is as the villain.

This 90-minute piece recounts how the good-looking Duran, who works in “middle management” and whose private life is in a shambles, picks up (or vice-versa) the hot as a griddle but somehow troubled cocktail waitress, Mariana, at a bar, and has a steamy affair that leads to her getting pregnant. Her troubles hark back to her abusive husband, the Man in Black, of whom Duran had no knowledge. Marianna is stabbed to death, and the Man in Black contrives to frame Duran. Never before in trouble with the law, he’s arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Folsom Prison.

Duran’s story is enacted in swiftly moving scenes, terrifically choreographed by Travis Wall (TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”), combining jazz dance and ballet, and including numerous sequences when the ensemble, even when just standing or sitting, reacts with sharply rhythmic precision to the decisive percussive beats punctuating the score. The sizzling ensemble moves with sinuous sexuality, occasionally serving as movement doppelgangers for the singing characters, although even the actors playing the latter are trained dancers.  

The Wrong Man’s music, well-orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire, is engaging and infectiously rhythmic but also repetitious, with too many numbers having a similar, one-note (metaphorically) attack. Similarly, the lyrics, lacking much detail, not to mention humor, often keep repeating the same refrains. And, with the singing usually at ear-blasting decibel levels, the narrative specifics blur, weakening the dramatic impact of the exposition and reveling instead in the hero’s trauma.

We understand his emotional anxiety but fail to sympathize because of its lack of nuance.  Anyone recalling the legal details surrounding the case in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man—regardless of it being a different story—will be disappointed at how simplistically Golan handles Duran’s judicial fate.

I sorely missed seeing Joshua Henry, whose performance others have praised to the heavens, especially given the racial significance his presence would have brought to this tale of wrongful incarceration. Vasquez was certainly satisfactory the night I saw him but the chances are he was the wrong man to save The Wrong Man from itself.

Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space/Newman Mills Theater
511 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through November 24