April 16, 2011

How "Catch Me if You Can" Tripped Itself Up

If you like musicals, then Broadway would seem to be the place for you this season.  Eight musicals have been scheduled to open in March and April—six of them new shows.  And we’re not talking small chamber-music musicals or even serious opera-esque musical dramas. We’re talking old-fashion, brassy song-and-dance shows with leggy chorus girls, technicolor costumes and hummable songs.

Among the most anticipated of them has been Catch Me If You Can, which opened this past Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre. People have been predicting for weeks that it was going to be a “must catch” show that would slay the competition at awards time (click here to read what one critic wrote after he caught the sneak peek for the press).

The excitement was understandable.  Catch Me If You Can probably has the best pedigree of any show on Broadway this season. Just about everyone involved with it has a Tony on his shelf or, at the very least, was nominated for one.

The real-life couple Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who did the music and lyrics for the long-running hit Hairspray, take on the same duties for this show. Meanwhile, the abundantly-talented Terrence McNally wrote the book, which is based on the popular 2002 movie that starred Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. 
As if that weren’t enough, the director is the artistically ambidextrous Jack O’Brien, who has worked magic on both classy plays like The Coast of Utopia  and Henry IV and mass-appeal musicals like Hairspray and The Full Monty

The rest of the all-star creative crew includes choreographer Jerry Mitchell, set designer David Rockwell, and costume designer William Ivey Long. Meanwhile, the cast is lead by the irrepressible Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit, a young cutie who broke into the major leagues as the original son Gabe in Next To Normal (click here for a video profile of him).

And yet, this is one of those times when the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Now, there are lots of good parts to Catch Me if You Can.  Like the movie, it tells the hard-to-believe-but-true story of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., who, while still in his teens, successfully passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, and an airline pilot. The plot tracks “The Fugitive”-style manhunt to catch the young conman that’s led by a no-nonsense FBI agent named Carl Hanratty.

It all takes place during the early ‘60s, which gives O’Brien and his cohorts the chance to indulge in all the ephemera of that decade—the bouffant hair-dos, the mini-skirts and skinny ties, the sexy glamour of air travel, the go-go dancing, and the whole “Shindig!” sensibility that the show “Mad Men” has made cool again.

All of it is fun to see onstage, even if it is starting too look a bit familiar after Promises, Promises last season and the current revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with which Catch Me if You Can has so much in common that some of the stage direction is the same.

The decade also offers up all kinds of musical styles—jazzy Bossa nova, girl-group soul, ring-a-ding swing, piano-bar ballads and Mitch Miller sing-alongs—that Shaiman and Wittman exploit wittily.  And, borrowing a page from Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s book for Chicago, McNally and O’Brien have staged Abagnale’s story as one of those TV variety shows that were so popular at the time, a conceit that lots of folks including my pal Bill didn’t care for at all.

Many critics have said that the device distances the audience from the character. But I think it might have worked if the creators had stuck to their conceit instead of dropping it whenever it became inconvenient.  And if all the songs had sprung from Frank’s point of view, the way they did in such variety spectaculars as “Liza With a Z’ and “Elvis in Concert.”

However, the bigger problem for me is that I never really felt anything for young Frank. As Bill later said, we never get to know the guy.  Oh, there’s plenty of back-story. Tom Wopat is poignant as Frank’s feckless dad, Kerry Butler, hardly recognizable and terribly underused, plays the sweetheart who becomes Frank’s downfall. But I could have done with less of them and other domestic scenes in exchange for more on how Abagnale committed his crimes and how he got away with them.

It’s not that Tveit doesn’t do a good job because he does. And he's certainly got all the right tools. His voice is strong, his looks winning and his commitment total. But what he lacks is the impishness that should animate the role.

Of course, it can be hard to hold the spotlight when you’re standing alongside Butz. The biggest showstopper comes towards the middle of the first act when Butz and the dancers perform a kinetic number called “Don’t Break the Rules.”  If the show had been done 15 or 20 years ago, he would have made a must-see Abagnale. 

If you're just looking for some easy entertainment, Catch Me If You Can isn't as terrible as you've probably read (click here for the StageGrade scorecard).  But with so many other choices this season, it's no longer a frontrunner.  Instead, it will have to settle for being an OK-to-see show.

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