'The Wrong Man'

'The Wrong Man'

Inspired by Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ pop/hip-hop songwriter Ross Golan presents a potent song cycle at Skylight Theatre 

By Bliss Bowen 01/29/2014

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It’s one of the most immortal and provocative lyrics in American music, at once bloodthirsty and clinically detached: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” But what propelled Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” protagonist to that moment?

That was the question that nagged at Ross Golan, best known for writing songs for and with the likes of Cee Lo Green, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Lady Antebellum and Maroon 5. The Illinois native is known for his “semi-hip-hop/reggae” sound, but around 2004 he started exploring music by country icons like Merle Haggard and especially Johnny Cash. What particularly fascinated him about the Man in Black’s “Folsom Prison Blues” was how it causes the listener to empathize with a confessed killer. What about the victim? Was it a case of wrongful incarceration? Golan started placing himself in that story, envisioning the characters and what their circumstances might be.

What emerged was a potent song cycle with obvious connections to “Folsom Prison Blues” — he quotes and references it several times. Golan started performing the songs in living rooms, until a friend tipped producers to what he was doing; they encouraged him to develop it further with an eye toward staging it. Fast forward to this weekend, when the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz presents preview performances of “The Wrong Man,” which makes its official premiere the following weekend.

Golan’s melodic narrative is now fleshed out with photographic imagery and an expressive dancer, but the production’s simplicity keeps the focus on Golan. Accompanying himself with just an acoustic guitar, he sings in a smooth falsetto that underscores his character’s youthful inexperience. “Walk of Shame” elicits a few knowing laughs, until it takes a hard turn that leaves him staring down a hitherto unremarkable life that’s suddenly on the line. The subject matter, combined with his rhythmic lyrical flow, occasionally calls Michael Franti’s “Stay Human” to mind.

“The Wrong Man’s” roots wind back beyond Johnny Cash and “Folsom Prison Blues,” to centuries-old murder ballad traditionals. But unlike classic folk and country murder ballads, which make clear distinctions between right and wrong, Golan’s character takes a dark journey that ultimately leads him to determine that “there is no difference between good and evil.” Despite its timeless plotline, “The Wrong Man” is a modern tale that raises questions about the death penalty and the criminal justice system — questions that, as in life, aren’t neatly resolved when the lights dim on Golan’s final notes. 

Preview performances of “The Wrong Man” with Ross Golan and Jennifer Brasuell at Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, are at 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Feb. 7; official opening 8 p.m. Feb. 8. Tickets: $15 for Friday, Saturday and Feb. 7 preview performances; $29.99-$34 Feb. 8-March 1. Box office: (213) 761-7061. skylighttheatrecompany.com

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