Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: 'Catch Me If You Can' Flies Into the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway

Aaron Tveit (center)
Norbert Leo Butz
Aaron Tveit
(all production photos: Joan Marcus)
Originally directed on film by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, “Catch Me If You Can” would hardly seem like a subject matter begging for a stage musical treatment.

But with the talents that brought the megahit “Hairprsay” to Broadway working together again on another film-to-stage adaptation set in the same time period, it would appear that lighting would strike twice. That team includes composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell and the same designers (David Rockwell, sets; William Ivey Long, costumes; Kenneth Postner, lighting). New to the party is Tony Award winning book writer Terrence McNally (“Ragtime,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”). The new musical is even taking up residence at the the Neil Simon Theatre where “Hairspray” triumphed for over six years.

Kerry Butler
“Catch Me If You Can” caputures the true store of Frank Abagnale, Jr, (Aaron Tveit) a world-class con artist who passed himself off as a doctor, lawyer and a jet pilot, all before the age of 21. With straight-arrow FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz) on Frank’s trail. In the end Agent Hanratty learns he and Frank aren’t so very different after all, and Frank finds out what happens when love catches up to a man on the run.

Previewing the show with a digital copy of the cast recording, the score by Shaiman and Wittman is less infectious than “Hairspray” but the songs in “Catch Me” do have a certain ease about them. Writing within the constraints that could have easily fallen prey to sound like Harry Connick, Jr. CD filler, the opening song “Live In Living Color” is a bouncy opening production number for the ensemble and leading man Tveit and makes for a promising start to the show. Other highlights include “Butter Outta Cream” which is a fun duet for Frank Junior and Senior (Tom Wopat) and “Seven Wonders” a plaintive love song between Frank, Jr and candy-striper Brenda Strong (Kerry Butler).

Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat
Aaron Tveit and Kerry Butler
Rachel de Benedet
Watching the performance tonight, one appreciates the epic scope of the original film. So much information and story, so many places and characters are covered fluidly within the film’s running time. The conceit of the stage adaptation that appeared to be clever on paper is ultimately its downfall and robs the show of any suspense.

Staged to resemble a television variety show, Frank, Jr. narrates as host to his own story. The show could have been called scenes from “Catch Me If You Can” as the musical jumps to each musical highlight rather than building the story and characters. Also one point of fun in the movie was scene after scene of Frank, Jr swindling his way through another scam. In this musical these scams carry far less dramatic weight. It is a shame because elements in the show give a hint of a musical that could have worked better under a different storytelling device. The show is intriguing if underwhelming.

Norbert Leo Butz
Candice Marie Woods and Aaron Tveit
Thank goodness for many things in the show including the big act one number for Butz who commandeers the stage with “Don’t Break The Rules.” Butz is a talent to reckon with. Attacking the middle-age agent role with gusto and finding every nuance of humor, his best actor Tony Award is well deserved. Such a sterling stage presence is Butz that Tveit’s Frank, Jr is overshadowed throughout the show.

Tveit actually has very little to work with as shades and development of his character are built mainly through his narration. But at least he always looks smart, smooth and sharp throughout the evening. One thing about Tveit is he has one of the better pop voices on Broadway and works wonders with his songs and is especially strong in “Goodbye” and “Someone Else’s Skin”.

“Goodbye” is one of the best songs in the score should have been the number to end the show. Though “Stuck Together” is a fine jazzy and showy duet for the two leads and which is the show's actual final number, “Goodbye” would have made for a far more dramatic and defiant ending.

Aaron Tveit (center)
Aaron Tveit
The show sports a talented pool in its supporting cast. Tom Wopat and Rachel de Benedet as Frank’s parents do fine work but are saddled with lackluster numbers. However Linda Hart and Nick Wyman as Brenda’s parents relish in the best ensemble number in act two with “(Our) Family Tree.” The always perky Butler as Brenda is underutilized so much so that the love that blossoms between her character and Frank, Jr practically arrives out of nowhere. Even Brenda’s big ballad “Fly, Fly Away” doesn’t give Butler the proper encompassing moment she deserves to gain the audiences sympathy.

Mitchell’s choreography is built into several major ensemble numbers but though “Doctor’s Orders” and “Jet Set” are fun, they detract from the colorful characters and actors populating the show. Rockwell’s big band set is the main backdrop of the show with scenes telescoped on to prop pieces sliding in to set time and place and all displayed in an appropriate 1960's color palette.

The musical will definitely have a life beyond Broadway. The recognizable title and economic staging will make the property attractive to theatre companies across the country when the rights become available. Make no mistake -- I do not dislike this musical. Just the variety show device. Good songs are there and good performances keep the show entertaining. But this musical could have been something great.

Aaron Tveit (left) and members of the cast.

*08/09/2011 Update: Producers announced the musical will close on Sep 4, 2011 having played 170 regular performances and 32 previews.

Aaron Tveit
Norbert Leo Butz among the FBI agents.
Tom Wopat and Norbert Leo Butz
Aaron Tveit


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