Catch Me If You Can
Neil Simon Theatre, NYC
In recent seasons, there have been numerous motion pictures adapted to Broadway musicals. Some have gone on to be big successes on Broadway -- Hairspray and The Producers are just two that come to mind. Others, like High Fidelity and Cry Baby, have been less successful, although I personally was quite fond of the latter show. This season, we have already had Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Sister Act is currently in previews. The latest show to open is Catch Me If You Can, based on the Steven Spielberg hit movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It has been adapted by many of the people who brought Hairspray to Broadway.
So how does it stack up? Catch doesn’t succeed like Hairspray did -- the sense of joy that show evoked isn't there. The first act of Catch, while fairly entertaining, did nothing to grab me, and seemed very much in need of a spark. But the second act proved to be a pleasant surprise, and I ended up enjoying Catch Me If You Can.
That is not to say that this show is brilliant or inspired. It never quite manages to excite, thrill, or take off, and it is not unfair to say it is often, especially in Act One, a formulaic, paint-by-the-numbers musical. But it has been mounted with professionalism and a Broadway gloss, for which director Jack O'Brien and the creators deserve praise; the narrative that was lacking in Act One picks up momentum in Act Two, becoming considerably more involving and compelling. Add to that a number of excellent performances and an attractive score, and Catch ended up winning me over.
The movie and the musical tell the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. who, as a teenager, became a successful con artist, posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, not to mention cashing several million dollars worth of bad checks. He is being pursued by FBI agent Carl Hanratty. The conceit of the musical is that Frank, when captured by the FBI in the opening sequence, wants to tell his story in a "living color" television variety show. The backdrop opens up to reveal a full onstage orchestra in what could be a television studio setting, and Frank goes back to the beginning and reveals how he got to this situation. As a television variety show, there are, of course, showgirls, who can play stewardesses, nurses, or any other participants in Frank's story. Maybe the conceit is needed to musicalize this story, but it never elevates the evening. The unit set with the orchestra does not allow for much visual splendor and is fairly unexciting.
The story builds slowly, with Act One playing out in an episodic manner without much dramatic impact. The use of the showgirls rarely adds to the evening, and may even distract from the story. The estimable Terrence McNally, who has written outstanding librettos for such past Broadway musicals as Ragtime and The Full Monty, has come up a little short this time with his book.
But Act Two is more focused, starting to concentrate on the psychological aspects of the main characters and building on the show’s key father-son and family issues. Frank gets romantically involved with a nurse, giving the plot a needed central story, and there are a series of strong musical numbers. The last six songs all worked well, and they propelled the musical to a conclusion that, while still having some holes, nevertheless proved highly satisfying.
The cast is uniformly excellent. As Frank, Aaron Tveit, who made a major impression in Next to Normal, is dashing, charismatic, and confident. He is a fine singer and a surprisingly nimble dancer, and he makes the con man likable. Tveit succeeds big time in his first role as a Broadway leading man. When he hugs Norbert Leo Butz's FBI agent, Carl, after being captured, it was touching and brought a note of emotion to the musical. I would like to have seen the relationship between Frank and Carl developed further, but the relationship culminates effectively late in the show. Butz gives a wonderful, beautifully constructed, properly quirky performance. Tom Wopat is terrific as Frank’s father; he and Butz are great together singing the fine "Little Boy, Be a Man." Kerry Butler, while underutilized, is winning as Frank’s girlfriend Brenda. She scores big with her rendition of "Fly, Fly Away" late in the show.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote the Hairspray score, have written another strong one for Catch. It is a different style of music from the mainly '60s pop songs found in Hairspray. Here, Shaiman and Wittman's work is often jazz-infused, with a number of songs having a more traditional Broadway sound. While no one song is instantly hummable, I could probably say that about almost every good new score I hear. There are a number of songs with attractive, pleasing melodies that I am eager to hear again. Catch does not have the showstoppers that Hairspray did, but the songs are good, and Jerry Mitchell has staged them well, even if they never quite soar.
One of Catch Me If You Can’s issues is that the musical struggles for a tone and a point of view. At times it has a noir feel (and those are some of its best moments). At other points, it ranges from a showgirl musical to a buddy musical to a romance to a commentary about father-son relationships. All may be valid, but it doesn’t mesh in a totally cohesive fashion.
Yet, in the end, I enjoyed it a good deal, in spite of its lack of thrills and its issues. At heart it is an old-fashioned musical, reminiscent of many other shows that, while not special, entertained audiences and ran for a season or longer. The score is a worthy one, and the performances are first-rate. While I might wish Catch Me If You Can were a bit more distinguished, I appreciate the solid evening of entertainment it provided. I hope it finds its audience. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.