Saturday, July 2, 2011

'Catch Me If You Can' Is Entertaining but Weak on Telling Its Story

Aaron Tveit and company.  Photo by Joan Marcus

It took me two viewings of Catch Me If You Can, the lively new musical at the Neil Simon Theatre, to figure out why the whole adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts.

This happens sometimes when an actor is woefully miscast, or the performers simply do not work well together  and you wind up with a production where everyone seems to be at cross purposes.  (For an egregious example, consider the woefully misguided revival of Hedda Gabler from a couple of years back, where no two actors seemed to be appearing in the same play.)

That is not the problem with the mixed bag that is Catch Me If You Can, where the company generally meshes well as an ensemble. Rather, the disconnect here lies between the musical side of this splashy and often entertaining show, and the unfortunately tepid book by Terrence McNally, upon which it rests.  (McNally’s talents are on far better display a couple of blocks south with the excellent revival of Master Class).      

On the plus side, you’ve got Norbert Leo Butz”s hyperkinetic and Tony-winning performance as the indefatigable FBI agent Carl Hanratty; Tom Wopat’s lost soul turn as Frank Abagnale Sr.; and Aaron Tveit's con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., the young forger and identity chameleon whose story this is. 

The best numbers in the show are the duets (with affectionate banter) that feature these fellows in pairs (Wopat and Tveit doing “Butter Outta Cream;” Wopat and Butz doing  “Little Boy, Be A Man;” and  Butz and Tveit doing “Strange But True”).  These songs bring back fond memories of what always felt at the time to be impromptu bits from the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, or Dean Martin and any of the guests on his eponymous TV variety show. 

Indeed, much of Catch Me If You Can is presented in the style of a TV variety show from the early 1960s—the ones that featured skits, songs performed by the likes of the "Rat Pack's" Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr., and choreographed numbers by The June Taylor Dancers (The Jackie Gleason Show) or go-go girls (Hullabaloo.)  Catch Me If You Can even features an appearance by television’s king of the sing-along, Mitch Miller. 

The conceit is that Frank Jr., about to be arrested, is stalling by sharing a glitzy version of his life story with the audience, and the tale unfolds as if it were one of those TV shows.   

As homage, this all works up to a point, but it also makes for a herky-jerky retelling of the events surrounding the teenager’s life of crime and of the FBI’s efforts to catch him.  To cite Chicago's Billy Flynn, we are being given the old razzle dazzle, while the focus ought to be on the ongoing chess match between Abagnale and Hanratty--and the unexpected rapport that develops between the defiant misfit trying to stay one step ahead of the law and the compliant representative of social order.  

In the end, what Catch Me If You Can delivers is winning performances under the well-paced direction of Jack O’Brien, spirited choreography by Jerry Mitchell, catchy tunes by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who have nicely captured the sound of the era), and the onstage dinner-jacketed band under the direction of John McDaniel, doing a fine job of selling the score.  

For many Broadway musicals, that would be more than enough cause for celebration.  Unfortunately, Catch Me If You Can is undermined by the decision to tell the story in short, self-contained vignettes that prevent it from captivating us with the true story of the boy who was able to take advantage of generally lax professional oversight during a more na├»ve and pre-Internet time in US history.  

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