Catch Me If You Can

By Pearl Chen

I’m usually suspicious when a musical talks straight to the audience. It can cheapen a narrative, and it jolts us out of the escapism that theater often provides. So when the stars of Catch Me If You Can, arguably this season’s hottest movie-to-stage offering on Broadway, shared early on that they would tell their tale via the “Frank Abagnale Show,” a TV production, I was hesitant. But as it turns out, this show-within-a-show conceit was very fitting. After all, life onstage isn’t all that different from the world the real-life Abagnale built at the height of his $2.5 million identity-swapping crime spree: None of it could have happened without the power of pretense.

Aaron Tveit and the cast of "Catch Me If You Can." All photos by Joan Marcus.

Created by the dynamos behind Hairspray–Marc Shaiman (music & lyrics), Scott Wittman (lyrics), Jack O’Brien (director)–Catch Me If You Can is a rollicking, faithful adaptation of the 2002 Spielberg movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. We follow Abagnale from his teen years, watching him learn the tricks of the trade from his father (”They only see the pinstripes [of a Yankee uniform]“) and later crumble with the news of his parents’ divorce.

One thing the book (by Terrence McNally) does well is to clearly spell out Abagnale’s motivation for running away and leading the double life he did: He wanted to help his father get back on his feet and win back his mother. Along the way, as movie fans will remember, he forges checks and impersonates a teacher, a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer — with an uncanny ability to weasel his way out of any sticky situation. “Just keep talking,” he reminds himself (and instructs the audience). People only hear what you tell them.

Aaron Tveit proves himself to be a likable leading man in Frank Abagnale. Previously known for supporting roles like Link in Hairspray, the hottie’s transitioned smoothly into the spotlight and channels Leo well. Norbert Leo Butz, on the other hand, as Police Chief Carl Hanratty (the poor detective who chases after Abagnale), is no Tom Hanks. He’s more of an Elmer Fudd — slapstick, clueless, and irresistably adorkable. “I have never been cool and I don’t intend to start now,” he announces unapologetically. In the highlight of the production, he led an ensemble showstopper that had audiences applauding long after the the music ended.

Norbert Leo Butz cuts a rug.

Other notable cast members include Kerry Butler as Brenda, the young nurse Abagnale falls in love with. She’s a little underutilized here–Butler was much more memorable headlining Xanadu–but she’s got the innocent, girl-next-door quality down cold. And by the end, she soars with her swan song, “Fly, Fly Away.” Not to be outdone, Tveit also delivers a moment of his own. “The show’s over,” he sings with tears in his eyes in one scene, and suddenly the life of pretense he’s built — here onstage and in the context of the story — feels shatteringly lonely.

Kerry Butler

I wished there was more of that kind of emotion in this musical. It would have elevated the show beyond its candy-colored sets, high-kicking dance numbers, and glamorous vibe. Not that those weren’t dazzling. Shaiman’s created a score that feels jazzy and cabaret, and everyone–from the leading actors to the leggy women–hams it up. The lyrics are, as usual, charmingly clever too.

But if this was a show about a boy who simply, at the end of the day, just wanted to get his family back together, then it could have put on a little more emotional weight. That said,  Catch Me If You Can is a thrilling, transfixing show. If all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then Frank Abagnale is an indisputable star.

******

Catch Me If You Can has an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theater (250. W. 52nd St.). Tickets: $60-$125.

Last 5 posts by Pearl Chen

Posted on 06 May 2011 at 10:11pm
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