Theater Review

Smooth Talk and Song

Catch Me If You Can is a shiny con job

By Steve Wiecking August 10, 2009

Tveit leads a TV special. No, make that musical. No, wait… (photo courtesy Chris Bennion)

The problem with Catch Me If You Can is that it too closely resembles its young hero. This latest world premiere musical at the 5th Avenue Theatre has the superficial words and good looks and seductive moves to charm the crowds. We are, after all, in the clever hands of the Hairspray team—including composer Marc Shaiman, colyricst Scott Wittman, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, scenic designer David Rockwell, and director Jack O’Brien. And Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally is in charge of book duties. But somewhere along the line everybody got caught up in the con and forgot about emotional substance.

Based on the true story that inspired the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, the show follows 1960s teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Aaron Tveit) as he wildly smooth-talks his way into jobs (pediatrician, Pan Am pilot) as well as millions of dollars through bad checks. Father Frank, Sr. (Tom Wopat) fails at business and at holding onto alluring, unfaithful wife Paula (Rachel de Benedet). They shatter young Frank’s illusion so he impetuously decides to become an illusion.

Catch Me boasts a good gimmick, so far as it goes. It begins with Frank, Jr. being apprehended by FBI Fraud Agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz). The kid turns to inform the audience, “I want to tell my story as it really happened, a TV story to end all TV stories.” The old NBC peacock insignia lights up a huge screen on the back wall, the orchestra kicks in—it remains on stage throughout thanks to designer Rockwell’s stylish, swooping bandstand—and we’re encouraged to welcome the high-stepping Frank Abagnale, Jr. Dancers. The ensemble sings “Live in Living Color!” with Tveit in the lead, swinging through lyrics like “Sit back and let me be your TV guide.” The rest unfolds as a prime time flashback (well…except when it isn’t a TV special, a distinction which remains a little fuzzy.)

It’s cute and glib. The songs are so-so but spirited. And the show continually tosses off shiny tricks. The Act Two opener features our hero in doctor guise while horny nurses gyrate and their go-go dancing silhouette counterparts are projected on a large Red Cross on that very busy back screen (I missed a portion of one big number because the pretty, pretty blinking lights behind it were in the process of spelling out Frank’s name). Costumer Bob Mackie, a legend responsible for almost any outfit Cher ever used for shock value, somehow does not get spectacularly tacky enough with his creations here but he does know how to do TV wardrobe. In short time, we do, indeed, feel as though we’re in some studio audience.

But a studio audience is not a theater audience.

Too much effort is expended on Frank, Jr.’s glitzy fantasies and not enough attention—including in McNally’s surprisingly underfed book—to the hurt that feeds them. A series of Act Two songs and revelations is too late to ask us to care about the decline of Frank’s father (Wopat sounds great but seems to be cruising on automatic). And I don’t know what we’re to make of the highly sexed Mrs. Abagnale: de Benedet has a terrific singing voice but an accent from some heretofore unrecognized French province.

Some tender moments finally arrive when Frank, Jr., still posing as a doctor, falls for geeky Southern belle Brenda (Kerry Butler), a hospital candy-striper. They share a sweet song, “Seven Wonders,” in which Frank, Jr. assures Brenda that her awkward charms outweigh all the worldly sights he’s seen. But then we meet Brenda’s family in New Orleans. Linda Hart, the villainous Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray, is boisterously funny as Brenda’s excitable mother but it’s like we’ve suddenly landed in Mame, complete with hoary song cues such as “We sing our feelings instead of havin’ ’em…” (This is the same McNally who wrote the fine libretto for Ragtime?)

With Tveit mired in TV land, the only real life in the show is the remarkable Butz, who turns Hanratty into a rumpled, sympathetic loner—all mumbles and tics, he moves with a permanent crimp in his body, as if Hanratty can’t quite straighten up after years at a thankless desk job. Butz won a Tony for his work playing a con man in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and here pulls off the nifty trick of goofing in the ironic way demanded by the show’s conceit yet still creating a lived-in person—something which the adorable and very hard-working Tveit (fresh from New York’s Next to Normal hit) never quite manages.

Very little of the experience hits you between the eyes in a boffo, Big Broadway way. Tveit’s bravura and top note on “Goodbye,” a final farewell song to the charade he’s been living, provide some thrill, as does Butler’s powerhouse vocal on her farewell to Frank, “Fly, Fly Away”—a bizarre, proto-gospel number that seems to stump even director O’Brien. Is it honesty or parody? And where did this little Southern white girl get that song? Butler sings the living hell out of it nonetheless.

There’s something unnervingly universal about being an impostor in one’s own life. The show would have you believe it’s tapped into that with an out-of-nowhere weepy climax—which all the “characters” watch from the exposed wings—followed by a pat denouement that quickly wipes away the tears. When Tveit gets handcuffed and hugs Hanratty, sobbing, you wonder why he’s making such a fuss. What did we miss? Did we change the channel?

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