“Live in living color,” it’s Frank Abagnale, Jr. Having gone from high school prankster to Pan Am pilot impersonator to doctor to lawyer, Abagnale’s vexingly precise transformations are at the center of the current Broadway musical adaptation of the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, itself in turn an adaptation of its protagonist’s real-life memoir.
With a book by veteran playwright Terrence McNally, the rest of the creative team recreates that of another recent screen-to-stage project, Hairspray. The score is once again by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the direction by Jack O’Brien, choreography by Jerry Mitchell, sets by David Rockwell, and so on (even the wig designer is the same). The theory seems to be that if this dream team of collaborators could succeed so winningly before, surely they must be able to recreate their achievements.
Of course, as we all know, this theory never seems to go completely as planned. In adapting the film for stage, a central framing device has been established to give the show a satisfying overall arch. Beginning with Abagnale’s capture, the musical flashes back to show an audience how Frank got where he did, using the conceit of a song-and-dance television special to do so.
Ultimately, however, this doesn’t add much in the way of color or depth. Like a television screen, much of what proceeds, though it tries awfully hard to pop on-stage, remains static despite the efforts of a hard-working cast and some top-notch craftsmanship.
The plot ought to be familiar to those who’ve seen the film. A young upstart con man takes on a variety of exciting careers, transforming his identity as he blazes a trail of bounced checks around the world, aided and abetted by his good-for-nothing father, Frank, Sr. Unfortunately for Frank, FBI agent Carl Hanratty is on his trail by the time that Frank makes his final mistake, namely falling in love.
Much of the creators’ work here is efficient and lively. The score, which features a number of catchy tunes, is hummable, particularly the lively opening number, “Live in Living Color,” “Someone Else’s Skin,” which introduces Frank’s fixation with fleeing, and “Doctor’s Orders,” a showy number given to the nurses in the second act. Many melodies spark instant memories of Shaiman and Wittman’s score for Hairspray, but the tunes here stand on their own regardless.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between Frank, Jr. (Broadway up-and-comer Aaron Tveit) and his father, played by Broadway and TV vet Tom Wopat, whose brash, rough-and-tumble demeanor suits the role to a T. During their scenes and musical numbers, particularly “The Pinstripes Are All That They See” and “Butter Outta Cream,” the story seems almost in focus.
It’s when the musical’s writers attempt to incorporate Hanratty (an underused, underwhelming Norbert Leo Butz) as a surrogate father figure, particularly during the embarrassingly sappy Christmas-themed number “My Favorite Time of Year,” that the musical seems to stretch its paternalistic themes a tetch thin. Try though they may, their half-baked attempts at uniting these two competing forces suffer from an abundance of sentimentality.
Nevertheless, despite its narrative flaws, Catch Me If You Can thankfully remains consistently entertaining. Even if its musical numbers don’t move the plot forward at quite the clip one would expect, it’s a pleasure to watch this fine cast tear up the stage. Tveit, a standout in Next to Normal two seasons prior, finds his footing here stepping into a leading man’s shoes.
Also outstanding is Kerry Butler, who, as love interest Brenda Strong, is supremely underutilized, stops the show with her rendition of the ballad “Fly, Fly Away,” one of those numbers that’s so goddamn well-written and impeccably belted that it barely matters that it has little to do with what’s going on on-stage.
Jack O’Brien keeps things trundling along well enough, though one wishes he’d had an assured enough hand to rein in the project’s writing team and tighten some of the show’s material. Nevertheless, O’Brien does the best with what he’s been given and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is sexy and efficient. The sets, designed by David Rockwell, are fluid and adaptable, consisting primarily of a stage-wide bandstand that encompasses a number of additional set pieces along the way.
It’s a workmanlike production, this Catch Me If You Can, so caught up in its own pedigree, it seems, that the powers that be forgot to find the soul behind the set pieces, or, as Hanratty sings, “the man inside the clues.” Though we watch him traverse the globe, we ultimately never really get to the heart of Frank Abagnale, Jr., and that’s perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this new musical.
It flies high, kicks us back a couple of bags of peanuts, and ultimately entertains. But for all that effort, it never really moves us to any sort of satisfying destination. If you find yourself feeling curiously stalled upon exiting the Neil Simon Theatre, even a little jet-lagged, I guarantee you’re not alone.