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Joshua Henry Is the Right Man for The Wrong Man

Henry stars alongside the equally fab Ciara Renée and Ryan Vasquez in an undercooked new off-Broadway musical.

Ciara Renée and Joshua Henry in The Wrong Man.
(© Matthew Murphy)

They should just change the title of The Wrong Man to The Joshua Henry Show. Henry, three-time Tony nominee, is onstage for all but a few scenes. His solos constitute 90 percent of the score, maybe even 95, and he sings the hell out of all of them. Henry, alongside similarly excellent costars Ciara Renée and Ryan Vasquez, is the glue that holds both Ross Golan's underbaked new off-Broadway musical and Thomas Kail's overdone production together.

All right, it's not that bad. In fact, it's far better than the other musicals presented in the past by MCC Theater, the company that gave us duds like Alice by Heart and Ride the Cyclone. The Wrong Man is just filled with rookie mistake after rookie mistake, using style to mask the missing pieces that would make it a substantial work of theater.

By day, Golan (book and score) is a multiplatinum songwriter, with hits like Ariana Grande's "Dangerous Woman" and Justin Bieber's "Take You" to his name. The Wrong Man started out as just another one of his tunes, before blooming simultaneously into a concept album, animated film, and stage show. It tells the story of Duran (Henry), who meets Mariana (Renée) in a bar in Reno, has a one-night stand and gets her pregnant, and then is framed for her murder by her jealous ex, called the Man in Black (Vasquez).

Ryan Vasquez and Ciara Renée in The Wrong Man.
(© Matthew Murphy)

As a song cycle, The Wrong Man is, pardon the expression, killer. I'd love to have this cast recording on my iPod, if only to hear Henry's ferocious vocals again, particularly on a pop power ballad called "Stay Positive," which elicited the kind of hoots usually earned by a "Defying Gravity." (Golan's concept album is very good, but not nearly as thrilling.) The music, which runs the gamut from rock to hip-hop to country, is catchy and haunting. There's no question that Golan can write a good hook, and he has an impressive ability to densely pack in as many lyrics as possible. Alex Lacamoire's melancholy orchestrations really got under my skin, too.

Hearing them on shuffle while you're jogging is one thing, though. To see them back-to-back in the service of telling a compelling story is another. In watching the show (as opposed to just listening to it), you realize that Golan's world is the complete antithesis of the theatrical realm, and his inexperience in writing for this medium is what stands out most. Good as the songs are, they lack any kind of specificity.

Take the lyrics for "Stay Positive," for example: "Beating and beating in my chest/beating in my chest/beating beating/my heart was beating in my chest/beating in my chest/beating, beating, beating." It's like a chain reaction: Entirely sung through and without dialogue, the songs blend together without differentiation, leading to a crucial lack of character development, which keeps us from really feeling any kind of emotion.

In the simplest terms, Kail's staging is a gigantic Band-Aid. In an effort to distract us from what's missing in the storytelling, his main directorial tactic is to divert our attention. This explains the eye-ache-inducing neon lights (designed by Betsy Adams), the nonrepresentational set that mostly looks like a recording studio (by Rachel Hauck), and the unmotivated choreography (by Travis Wall), which provides each of the three leads with a dance double for no particular reason. They could have just hired a different book writer instead.

Fortunately, the three leads are so fantastic and so erotic that you almost forget that The Wrong Man, overall, is pretty pointless. Vasquez, whose claim to fame is that he's played all the male principal roles in Hamilton on Broadway, is sinewy and snakelike as the Man in Black, giving off the truly disturbing aura of a psychopath. Renée finds nuance, emotion, and humanity in an entirely overlooked role whose only function on the page is to be a sex object. As for Henry, he delivers one of those great charismatic performances that leaves you breathless and gasping for air so you can cheer a little harder. He is this show, and he's just tremendous. Too bad The Wrong Man doesn't always inspire the same excitement.

A scene from The Wrong Man.
(© Matthew Murphy)

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