Theatre Review | Catch Me If You Can: Life Could Be a Dream, Sh-Boom Sh-Boom

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Unstoppable! A Winner! Fabulous! Spectacular! A Tidal Wave!

And those were just the quotes I saw on the theatre marquee across the street for Jersey Boys the moment I walked out of the Neil Simon Theatre Saturday after seeing Catch Me If You Can before Sunday night’s opening.

Well, damn those critics, taking all the good quotes away from me. But they are MINE now I tell you, MINE! HaHaHaHaHa!

Swept along on a tidal wave, indeed, of an audience so enthusiastic, I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theatre feeling so exhilarated and happy – happy to be living in New York, happy for the privilege of Broadway theatre, and happy to be so in love with this very flawed, but nevertheless, marvelous cast and show – yes, marvelous! – that I wanted to turn right around and go back and buy the CD, only to remember that it has yet to be released. I just didn’t want this party to end!

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

So look, mind if I just cut to the chase? If our mayor can tear himself away from less pressing business, could he do something really important for our city and have this day officially declared “Norbert Leo Butz Day“? Oh heck, have every day declared Norbert Leo Butz Day!

Now that I got that off my bursting plate, let’s talk details.

First off, a warning: If you wear hearing aids, turn them off. If you don’t wear hearing aids, you will after the show. The sound is so deafening, at least from my prime seat in the orchestra (oh, poor me), that I was actually wincing in pain. Can you hear that over your woofers, you highly accomplished sound designer, Mr. Steve Canyon Kennedy?

But who cares? Catch Me If You Can is a crowd-pleaser from start to finish. And it is also the first time I have ever said the following words (I am shaking my head in wonder even now). Catch Me If You Can has some major problems and certainly isn’t a great show, but… IT’S WONDERFUL! I LOVED IT! I WANT TO SEE IT AGAIN! If you knew me, you would know that this is high praise indeed from this particular peanut gallery.

So before I use up entire paragraphs on all the Tony Awards, Grammys, Emmys, Oliviers, Drama Desk, Obies and, and … ad infinitum…this phenomenal powerhouse of creative talent has garnered, maybe I can just say that this thoroughbred races onto Broadway like a pedigreed bat out of … musical heaven.

Catch Me If You Can has a book by Terence McNally, music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman (arrangements and orchestrations, too – his Playbill bio is hilarious) and co-lyricist Scott Wittman, groovy TV-worthy sets by David Rockwell, fab costumes by William Ivey Long, Kenneth Posner’s “living color” lighting, zippy choreography by Jerry Mitchell and Tower Control-worthy direction by Jack O’Brien, whose own credits alone read like a history of the best theatre ever. Most of the same team that brought us Hairspray.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Aaron Tveit, as “Frank Abagnale, Jr.,” is a talent who can sing and act and dance and charm. Indeed, Frank sings and dances through his fancy footwork of a life, leaving home at 16 to pursue an amazing, convoluted, increasingly desperate white-collar crime spree (though depicted as a fairly obstacle-free – and even desperation-free – straight path in this show). Airline pilot! Doctor! Lawyer! And all by the age of 18! Changing names and expertly crafted ID cards, forging checks and printing money, he bluffs his way through each new profession with astounding and unnaturally fearless nerve, without a single credential to slow him down. In fact, a sense of fear, oddly enough, almost never registers on this musicalized Teflon Frank.

His small-time, con-man father “Frank Abagnale, Sr.” – played by Tom Wopat – believes all that counts in life is the flash, not the substance, as he sings a good song “The Pinstripes Are All That They See.” And his sexy French war-bride mother “Paula,” played well by Rachel de Benedet, is emotionally absent, interested only in pleasure and dancing her way through the men in her life. Still, Frank, Sr. at least cares a little about his son, though Frank, Jr. has yet to learn to consider the source. And no matter how hard Frank the son tries to please, Frank the father is always more interested in his own corrosive dreams than instilling integrity and depth in his child.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Which is why we are even more grateful for Mr. Butz – remember him? – for bringing the heart to a lot of heartless people. Determined to get his man, FBI Agent “Carl Hanratty” is a sweet, brash, hat-wearing, paper-pushing, cracking wise, by the book, hard-boiled, nerdy gum shoe (I didn’t see one but he had to have been packing a slide rule next to his gun), physically characterized by the arthritic walk of a man who must have pounded his body on too many street beats and foot chases. He is also the only character to bring the voice of reality, and some much-needed quiet gravitas, every now and then to a show that threatens to blast out of the theatre at any moment. He is the only one to remind Frank’s family, and even our audience caught up in this huckster’s light spell, that young Frank is a criminal who could actually get himself killed if he doesn’t stop. And he is the only character able to mine his own depth and integrity to discover in Frank the lost boy without a family or hope (and discover in himself a lonely man without a son, or much of a life outside the Bureau. You see that one coming a mile away, but it’s still a welcome cavalry).

And boy can he sell a song. Just wait ’til you get the full wattage in his showstopper “Don’t Break the Rules.” He steals every scene (or would if he were in them).

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

As Frank, Sr., Tom Wopat shines and slowly implodes. This true stage talent and crooner is sexy, commanding, and smooth … he can park his spit-polished wingtips under my Barcalounger any day … as he slides along on his character’s ever-downward spiral.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Kerry Butler as “Brenda” – who beautifully sings the lovely “Fly, Fly Away” and is the one girl who slows Frank down even a little – is resolute and forgiving, though the book doesn’t give her much to do, or much time for their relationship to develop into a love worthy of song. Linda Hart is fabulous as her Southern belle Mack truck of a mother, and Nick Wyman is a treat as her disapproving, wily Southern lawyer-father who can’t be had. But is. And as the bearers of, at times, lame dialogue, the FBI agents make you wonder how this country managed to track any criminals, or solve anything at all, before the Internet. Add the cute, energetic Go-Go girl chorus, with leg kicks and comic turns as the many women Frank meets along the way – and you’ve got yourself a good time.

It’s the music and book, however, from whence most our problems cometh. Which, of course, could throw a wrench into a musical.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

While the book has some of Mr. McNally’s customary, incendiary brilliance – funny, clever, and ironic, especially when his words are delivered by Mr. Butz – I had trouble with the conceit of setting this story in the mind (and television show in the mind) of Frank, Jr. Not that it wasn’t appropriate for a character whose life is ensconced in some equally flimsy make-believe, but the TV variety show in his mind, complete with “The Frank Abagnale, Jr. Players,” had the effect of constantly interrupting and distancing the drama, the suspense, and the poignancy of a story depicted far more movingly in the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, and 1980 memoir by the real Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., on which it is based. Every time the Players moved in and ramped things up, I was unhappily reminded of those incredibly annoying Ooompa-Loompas bringing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to a screeching halt. (Lo and behold, as Jungian cosmic coincidence would have it, reading the Playbill after the show, it turns out that Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman will be bringing that very same movie to the Broadway stage!)

And while the lyrics by Mr. Shaiman and Mr. Wittman are clever in many spots, the music by Mr. Shaiman, in this case the Rat Pack Sixties, all mod and jazzy with no Beatles on the horizon for this teenager, after all … is an accomplished pastiche of nothing too memorable. And loud. Noisy. Peppy, peppy, peppy! So frantic! With a white-jacketed swinging big band of a “television” onstage orchestra, even at one point conducted by an imaginary “Mitch Miller,” the music is a breathless rush through Frank’s life, pausing only occasionally to fill the heart and soul with lovely, quieter melodies like “Don’t Be a Stranger,” of which I wished there had been more. And which lingered tantalizingly, albeit more in the idea than the music, bringing me back to that awaited CD I would still like to have so that I can listen once more.

And so, Beauty News readers, while this is a mixed review if ever there was one, see it anyway! No matter what anybody else tells you, Catch Me If You Can, for all its flaws, is a don’t-miss Broadway show. See it for Mr. Butz, see it for that hard-working cast, see it for all the creative talent that does get it RIGHT much of the time. See it because it’s an original Broadway musical, which is a celebration in itself, and see it because – I am telling you – our audience was on its feet cheering.

Okay, ready? Here’s my big finish (with the groaner that will no doubt launch or close a thousand other reviews, and that’s show biz, kid)… Catch it if you can!

Ticket Information:

Tickets are available at at 877.250.2929 or online at Tickets can also be purchased at the Neil Simon Theatre Box Office (250 West 52ndd Street).

Performance Schedule:

Catch Me If You Can plays Tuesday evenings at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2pm, and Sunday matinees at 3pm.

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