“The Wrong Man” isn’t the most original story set to music; the title itself telegraphs the plot line. But this new chamber musical at MCC Theater advances storytelling in musical theatre by dint of bold, muscular choreography and dazzling lighting direction both seamlessly integrated with a soulful, hook-laden, pop-driven score. Directed by Thomas Kail, still in high gear from his direction of the phenomenon “Hamilton” and choreographed by Travis Wall, best known for television and rock concert dance routines, “The Wrong Man” finds its emotional power in how it tells its story rather than the story itself.
Like Broadway’s favored musical of the moment “Hadestown”, “The Wrong Man” began as a concept album. Pop-song writer Ross Golan, who’s composed mega-hits for the likes of pop stars Arianna Grande and Selena Gomez, started composing in 2009. Working with director Kail and Tony and Grammy winner, musical supervisor Alex Lacamoire ("Hamilton", "Dear Evan Hanson" ) for the last two years, he’s fashioned a virtually sung-through book about down-on-his-luck Duncan (Joshua Henry), who’s just lost a girlfriend and is at a dead-end in his hometown of Reno, Nevada. Life looks brighter for Duncan when he hooks up with the sultry, sophisticated Marianna (Claire Renee) who’s trying to shake a past with her abusive, criminal boyfriend called Man in Black (Ryan Vasquez). Marianna gets pregnant by Duncan. Joshua wants to get out of Reno with her, but any dreams of starting a new life turn tragic when the Man in Black returns to avenge both Marianna and Duncan. Soon, Duncan is framed for one murder, falsely accused of another, then tried, convicted and imprisoned.
The wrongness of Duncan’s fate is heightened by the role being played by the African American Mr. Henry who wowed audiences as Aaron Burr in the Los Angeles Company of “Hamilton” and as Billy Barolo in the Broadway’s last revival of “Carousel”. His big, muscular physique matches his voice; he’s perfectly paired with the lithe, womanly Ms. Renee. Their pick-up scene in the bar is as sexy as their lovemaking scene back at her place (“Take off Your Clothes”). These scenes, like all the action in “The Wrong Man” are not only sung-through but also precisely choreographed with dancers from the ensemble of six. The sex is as precisely choreographed as the violence, and all that is precisely choreographed with a brilliant, electronic lighting design by Betsy Adams.
The set is an open, stage, making the most out of the superb sight lines and acoustics of the new Robert C. Wilson Theater Space. Grandstand seating on either side flanks the open stage; the small, onstage band of keyboards, guitars, and drums is in the back. Props include not much more than chairs and benches, moved about to create scenes by the ensemble with as much grace and precision as dance. The set is largely defined by Ms Adams lighting design, three walls of parallel lights that switch color schemes by scene, in many cases synchronized perfectly with specific dance moves. Choreographer Wall’s dance vocabulary is largely modern dance and ballet. And if you notice, through the micro-precision of every aspect of stage movement with song notes and lighting cues, the influence of music video you are not mistaken; “The Wrong Man” intergrates music video technique wholly and appropriately.
Besides the seduction suite of song between Duncan and Marianne, the number that best displays the integrated circuitry of song and ensemble dance is the electrifying “When Evil Man Go on the Run” lead by an astonishing Mr. Vasquez as Man in Black. Mr. Henry is in total command of the moving, albeit predictable, suite of concluding songs - “Break Me Out”, “I Wanna Live” and, finally, the metaphorically titled “Leaving Reno”. “The Wrong Man” story is familiar, but its thrilling, non-stop mix of concept album, modern dance, and chamber musical structure elevates musical theatre storytelling another level.
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