Ross Golan’s score is very much the right score for his new musical, “The Wrong Man,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater. There hasn’t been original music this arresting on the New York stage since David Yazbek’s “The Band’s Visit” opened off Broadway two years ago. The big difference is that Yazbek is a musical-theater vet and Golan is making his stage debut. He is not without his credits, of course, having written hits for Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, among many others.
In the opening scenes of “The Wrong Man,” it appears that Golan’s strong suit as a composer is rhythm as he indulges repeatedly in a heightened recitative that veers into patter songs. They are, however, not your typical patter songs that dazzle with wit and humor. Golan’s work here is more a stream of consciousness where dark thoughts and deep emotions flow, tumble around and finally come together for an uneasy rest, only to erupt again into another song. Gradually, strong melodies do emerge, and the rapid-fire, almost hallucinatory patter functions as a bridge between those very affecting and varied ariosos.
“The Wrong Man” is not based on Alfred Hitchcock’s true-crime story of the same title, from 1956, about a man (Henry Fonda) falsely accused of a robbery. In Golan’s musical, for which he also wrote the book, a man named Duran (Joshua Henry, “Carousel”) is falsely accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend, Marianna (Ciara Reneée). Also upping the dramatic ante considerably, Duran is unemployed and broke and recently dumped by another woman.
Golan’s music consistently rivets the attention. Only occasionally, with the girlfriend’s songs, does he overpack his lyrics with too much exposition and background. “The Wrong Man” is sung-through, and when the actors aren’t singing (all of them in strong voice), they’re dancing, and it’s here in the many extended ballets (choreographed by “So You Think You Can Dance” vet Travis Wall) that Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations imbue Golan’s music with gorgeous impressionistic colorings.
What rarely holds the attention is Golan’s story, however. A man accused of a crime he did not commit is not inherently an interesting man. Unlike a tragic hero, such a character in no way contributes to what’s happening. He’s merely acted upon. Hitchcock avoided this problem with his “Wrong Man” by gradually shifting the focus to the accused man’s wife (Vera Miles), who undergoes a mental breakdown due to stress and uncertainty over whether her husband really is guilty of the crime.
Golan’s “The Wrong Man” focuses entirely on unbridled injustice, but after that is established, the theme isn’t explored or expanded to help carry the story. And Duran himself remains a total cipher, despite being played by the always charismatic Henry. Who is this guy besides being broke, out of work and in love? Likewise, the real killer is nothing more than a bad guy. He’s even called the Man in Black (the smirking Ryan Vasquez). Beguiled by the music, theatergoers may still find themselves jumping a scene or two ahead of the story. Unfortunately, your forecast is always accurate.
Rachel Hauck’s scenic design presents a bare stage filled by Betsy Adams’s moody lighting and Thomas Kail’s fluid direction of the actor-dancers. He and Wall keep the stage ever-flowing with ballets; only Wall’s overuse of the ronde de jambe dilutes the impact. Especially breathtaking is the murder pas de deux performed by Kyle Robinson and Tilly Evans-Krueger, who is exceptional throughout.