Ross Golan is a multi-platinum singer-songwriter best known for crafting hits for pop stars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. But now he can add another feather to his cap: dramatist. Not only did he compose the music and lyrics for his new Off-Broadway show “The Wrong Man,” but he wrote the book as well. For a first timer, it’s an impressive effort.
“The Wrong Man” is no ordinary musical. It is entirely sung through and focuses on songs and choreography, with the book almost as an afterthought. Which makes sense since the show was born as a solo acoustic performance, first staged in the living rooms of Golan’s friends, then morphed into a full-length concept album. “The Wrong Man,” which registers more like a highly staged concert, has been gestating for well over a decade.
The slender narrative follows the trajectory of Duran, a rootless young man with serious abandonment issues, who hooks up with Mariana, a smokin’ hot dirty blonde in a Reno dive bar. Later he learns she is pregnant, but before the couple can forge a life together, Duran is framed by her crazed ex-husband for murders he didn’t commit, is wrongly convicted, and faces execution. And that’s pretty much it.
The production, courtesy of MCC Theater, is so tight it feels Broadway-ready. It doesn’t hurt that the director is Thomas Kail and the orchestrator is Alex Lacamoire, the team behind megahit “Hamilton.” The show boasts stunning choreography by Travis Wall, the breakout star from “So You Think You Can Dance,” and an elegantly spare scenic design by Rachel Hauck, who won the Tony last season for “Hadestown.”
The talented five-person band is featured prominently onstage, serving as backdrop for the action. Golan’s appealing score is a soulful mix of contemporary pop, driving hip-hop, gospel, and folk rock.
The performances are first-rate. As Duran, Joshua Henry (Tony-nominated for his role as Billy Bigelow in the recent revival of “Carousel”) is as good as it gets. His vocalizations are clear and pure and potent. He paints a striking portrait of a man, forced to leave home at age 16 to escape an alcoholic father who “beat mom like a piñata,” who finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ciara Renée brings an unexpected tenderness to the anguished Mariana, revealing a warm center under a tough-as-nails exterior. Ryan Vasquez (“Hamilton”) is supremely menacing as Duran’s nemesis. His two songs deliver a jolt of wry wit and are among the show’s strongest, a welcome counterpoint to the string of numbers spotlighting Duran. The spirited ensemble is equally gifted in both the song and dance.
Not that it’s a perfect musical. Despite powerhouse vocals and eye-popping movement, the emotion does not land as powerfully as it should. Many songs are expository, recounting stories instead of dramatizing action in the moment, and that curbs emotional investment on our part. What’s more, the relationship between Duran and Mariana is only briefly sketched. Perhaps another duet between the couple would drive home why the stakes are so high once tragedy strikes.
During “The Wrong Man”’s long development process, a trend in true-crime entertainment took hold, with shows like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” HBO’s “The Jinx,” and the “Serial” podcast, and “The Wrong Man” got a hefty boost from that wave. The musical drama is so specific, so quirky, and feels so real people assumed it belongs to that genre. Little did they realize that Duran’s story is purely fictional — Golan made it all up.
THE WRONG MAN | MCC Theater | Newman Mills Theater, 511 W. 52nd St. | Through Nov. 17: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $66-$132 at mcctheater.org | Ninety mins., with no intermission