Catch Me If You Can
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the motion picture by DreamWorks
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Location: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St
Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Lighting: Kenneth Posner
Costumes: William Ivey Long
Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, Tom Wopat, Kerry Butler and Joe Cassidy
Why tell the truth when the lie comes with a kick line?
The roar of a jet engine taking off signals the beginning of an extraordinary trip into the prodigious imagination of wunderkind con artist, Frank Abgnale, Jr., narrator and star of the captivating new musical Catch Me If You Can. Based on the Spielberg movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio with the same name, this theatrical flight erased any memory I ever had of the film as I was swept up in the play’s entrancing spectacle and swelling music. With a book by Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!), music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) under the direction of Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia), this satisfying and sumptuous production delivers on the glitz and glamour one would hope for in a big Broadway extravaganza while still crafting a story that suggests a subtle indictment of current cultural mores.
We zoom in and land at the end of the story, when our fearless hero, Frank Jr., played with charm and verve by the handsome Aaron Tveit (Next to Normal), is being surrounded. As the arresting officers close in, he gets a flash of inspiration and decides to give a confessional statement in the form that he knows best: theater. His whole life is a show. In this meta moment of lucid clarity, we catch a glimpse into the psyche of this character and immediately empathize with his penchant for fiction. Let’s face it, a lie is often more entertaining than the truth and twirling a baton at the center of the American Dream is none other than good old fashion illusion. Aaron Tveit’s voice soars as the dancing girls enter to carry us away on the tune of “Live in Living Color,” the shows undeniable anthem that bounces with pop sensibility.
Frank Jr. then takes us on a guided tour of his early years. We witness that the source of his complicated relationship with the truth stems from his father, Frank Sr., the charismatic Tom Wopat of recent acclaim for his performance in A Catered Affair, but most famously known (at least for this reviewer) as Luke Duke from the Dukes of Hazzard. Frank Sr. has a deceptive charm that has allowed him to sweet talk his way into his wife’s heart and out of trouble on behalf of his son. Young Frank idolizes his father so much that when the cracks in the facade of their perfect life start to crumble (the family business goes under, his parents’ marriage fails) Frank Jr. bolts rather than face the sad truth that he has to chose which of his two parents he wants to live with. Consistent with his upbringing, he continues to bend reality to his whim, starting a brilliant career as a forger of bad checks and impersonator par excellence. He careens from glamorous career to glamorous career — first as a pilot, then a doctor and finally as a lawyer. Frank Jr. uses his generative imagination to concoct wild fictions and doors swing wide open. A full orchestra dressed in white coats complete his dream with smooth, up tempo music. For the first act we are entirely under his spell. It seems like nothing can stop him, especially the small drab FBI agent assigned to his case.
Enter Agent Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent doggedly pursuing our hero. Determined but mistaken (he believes he is searching for an older, sophisticated, more experienced forger), this man is the perfect foil to the debonair Frank Jr. Dressed in a plain grey suit, sometimes limping, mostly sitting behind a desk, Agent Hanratty sings a song entitled “Don’t Break the Rules.” Expectedly, it is about accountability and responsibility, two ideas that seem incredibly boring compared to the high kicking lifestyle as modeled by playboy Frank Jr. The contrast is stark and makes the point that we live in a society that values flash above substance and appearance over truth. We are seduced by Frank’s ability to create castles out of air and it starts to make sense why we are a culture living on credit, spending more than we make. Who wants to be burdened by pesky things like reality or a recession when we can escape into a world of self-delusion, borrow more money and buy a better version of ourselves?
The performances by all the lead cast members are exceptional but sparks fly whenever Aaron Tveit is center stage. Norbert Leo Butz does a great job as the fumbling Agent Hanratty but, possibly because of his material, there is a drop in energy when the story turns to his character. Kerry Butler (Xanadu and Hairspray) does her best to make her ingénue role more three dimensional, but her character is introduced too late for her to succeed. Without question, the true stars of this musical are the gorgeous chorus girls who glide along the stage with dazzling grace. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell recalls a bygone era creating magic with an array of kick lines and fan dances. The male chorus also displays energetic power, but really, nothing can compare to those smooth gleaming gams. They hypnotize with effortless feminine beauty.
Catch Me If You Can nearly torpedoes its way through two and half hours propelled by the velocity of its sparkling dance filled spectacles, but sadly it starts to lose its momentum in the second act, when Frank’s ways start to catch up with him. Throughout the production, the elements of the play work on our whimsical, playful sensibilities. It teaches us that nothing is as it seems and we shouldn’t take anything Frank Jr. says seriously. But as we head into darker territory in the second half, it’s hard to make the emotional transition the work asks of us. Consequently some of the sentimental scenes, such as those depicting Frank Sr.’s demise, come off as forced. It’s hard to have empathy for a character who has extolled the virtues of faking it, after his streak ends. That’s the thing about flash, it doesn’t last. So when Frank Jr. professes his eternal devotion to a girl he’s met along his journey of delusion, it is hard to accept the emotion the event is treated with. Everything we have seen prior about our hero has shown us to expect the opposite. The plot that was served up with a wink cannot easily pull at our heartstrings towards the end to make a clichéd point about love and redemption. As much as Catch Me If You Can would like to convince us that it doesn’t condone Frank Jr.’s reckless behavior, the previous two hours can be entered as evidence to the contrary. In that way, the play, with all of its savvy and smarts, does not really fess up to its own moral center (that is slightly askew), which more accurately reflects the spirit of our times. But even this cannot take away from the satisfying pleasure this production gives its audience. The old razzle dazzle is alive and well and working its magic nightly at the Neil Simon Theatre and if you have the chance, you should try to catch it if you can.