Review: ‘The Wrong Man’ at the Skylight Theatre

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thewrongman

It’s quite possibly one of the best “albums” you will hear all year, and if not that, then at least a gobsmacking display of songwriting chops that will have you scrambling for the lyrics sheet. If there were one.

The hitch is: “The Wrong Man” isn’t an album. Its 14 songs aren’t even recorded, and may not be anytime soon, and the lyrics sheet for now remains the private property of singer-songwriter Ross Golan, the rocker-turned-songwriter-for-hire whose resumé includes co-authoring tunes for Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban, Cee Lo Green, Demi Lovato and Icona Pop, among others.

“The Wrong Man,” which we first spotted three years ago being workshopped, is being staged as an “underground musical” at the 88-seat Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz, with the songwriter as the star of the show. So the production is currently the only way to hear the music. Ten years in the works, Golan’s songs spin the yarn of a man wrongly convicted of murder in Reno in a way that could be imagined as the back story for Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The theatrical production is directed and choreographed by Lee Martino and features Jennifer Brasuell as Mariana, the ill-fated love interest of the protagonist Duran. The show revolves around Golan and his acoustic guitar. Multiple screens display projected visuals, some literal and some abstract, as Golan sings about the night he got lucky in a local bar called Ray’s and how things spiraled out of control thereafter.

Musically, “The Wrong Man” reinforces the restorative power of acoustic guitar and voice. Golan first made his mark in music with the band Ross Golan & Molehead, who were signed a decade ago when the songwriter was fresh out of USC,  notable for their then-fresh marriage of hip-hop and acoustic pop. Golan went on to team up with Tommy Walter in Glacier Hiking until he started getting songwriting work.

Over that time, he worked on “The Wrong Man” in the background of his other projects, fleshing out the song cycle by performing the work at house parties. The story begins at the end, with Duran’s lament from death row. After the title track, Golan rewinds to the beginning with “What Happens Here Stays Here.” “Take Off Your Clothes” gets a little steamy; “Walk of Shame” makes you laugh as Duran’s sweat dries. And “No Daddy” introduces the plot twist of Mariana’s pregnancy before the singer reprises “What Happens Here” to describe the frame-up by Mariana’s estranged husband (a “man in black,” get it?).

Golan pulls the listener though Duran’s arrest and trial with acrobatic lyricism and seemingly simple guitar parts – alternately tickling, strumming, picking and tapping to provide just enough musical structure for his pliable melodies. The songs’ strengths are twofold: Golan wields a rapper’s sense for lightning-fast couplets, dense imagery and internal rhymes; and he writes soaring pop choruses that are stickier than Duran’s legal woes. It’s not a stretch to imagine the title track, “What Happens Here,” “Take Me Out” and “Leaving Reno” as actual radio songs, independent of their context.

If “The Wrong Man” were an album, it’d probably be described as a folk-reggae-pop hybrid, but as it is, it’s just a tuneful tale of woe – notably and purposefully unavailable on iTunes, Soundcloud or Youtube – that, at about an hour long, seems to fly by faster than a three-minute pop hit.

||| Live: “The Wrong Man” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (except March 2) through March 16.