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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Countless Pleasures in Catch Me if You Can
at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's interview with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and his review of Das Barbecü

Though it may be spring 2010 before the new musical Catch Me if You Can hits Broadway, Seattle audiences have been exulting in the pleasures of this warm, witty, wise and generally wonderful show for almost weeks now. The official opening night performance took place this past Thursday August 6 and, a few technical glitches aside, the show seems in closer shouting distance of being ready for Broadway than any musical which has tried out in Seattle since, well, Hairspray, which was put together by much the same creative team here several seasons back.

Catch Me If You Can
Aaron Tveit and Cast

Like the majority of contemporary Broadway musicals, Catch Me if You Can is based on a popular film hit, in this case a Steven Spielberg crowd pleaser starring Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life master impostor Frank Abagnale, Jr. and Tom Hanks as the dogged FBI agent Hanratty, who eventually gets his man. Yet this Catch Me is anything but a slavish copy of the film with songs inserted, and is all the better for going its own ingenious way. With a typically strong, sleek and solid book by master adapter Terrence McNally (whose past gems of adaptation include Ragtime, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and The Full Monty), a sometimes swingin', sometimes soulful sixties-style score by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), and directed with poignancy and pizzazz by Jack O'Brien, the show's concept is to have Frank, Jr. tell his tale his way, in flashback, as an homage to the bygone days of the television variety shows and musical spectaculars of the era. The concept is clearly stated in the marvelously mood-setting opening number "Live in Living Color!" but is not unduly dwelt upon. We know what world we're in by the placement of the show's swell on-stage orchestra helmed with characteristic aplomb by musical director John McDaniel.

Frank, Jr. adores his warm-hearted dreamer of a dad, and his glamorous French mother, but sets out on his own life journey at 17, when his mismatched folks divorce. But shortly before he departs, Frank, Sr. has given him his own checkbook and planted the seed of larceny in his son's mind, to the catchy tune of "Fifty Checks," one of several Shaiman melodies which sound like they could have jumped right out of a sixties hit parade. Frank, Jr. wracks up a small fortune writing and kiting bad checks, then takes to impersonating a Pan American Airways pilot, with all the perks and pretty babes that go with the territory. Carl Hanratty, the quirky, workaholic FBI agent gets Jr. on his radar, and thus begins the multi-year pursuit. Hanratty even gets him trapped in a hotel room, before the deft young impostor cons his way out of the FBI agent's clutches, posing as Secret Service agent Barry Allen (the secret identity of comic book hero The Flash). On Christmas Eve, Frank, Jr. calls Hanratty to apologize, and they share a bittersweet first-act closer, with Frank's parents, "Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year."

In act two, Frank, Jr. has adopted the new identity of an M.D. at a Georgia hospital, where he meets the love of his life, Brenda. After proposing to her, the pair go to her parent's New Orleans estate, and after Frank wins his future-in-laws over, they plan an engagement party for the young couple. Hanratty and his fellow agents bust in on the party, but Frank, Jr. has narrowly escaped, instructing the hopelessly devoted Brenda to meet him at the airport, where they will escape to Europe. The escape is foiled, and Frank, Jr. tells the audience he wants to say "Goodbye" (a powerhouse number) and have his happy ending. The musical greatly truncates the last portion of the film story at this point, and a smoother wrap-up seems worth devising in the months before the show opens in New York. And perhaps the show's creators can devise a clearer focus on how Frank Jr. gradually adopts Hanratty as a second father figure. Those caveats aside, though, the show is a blue-chip delight, and much of that derives from stellar performances by an exceptional cast, especially its three outstanding male leads.

Catch Me If You Can
Norbert Leo Butz and Tom Wopat
In a star-making performance, Aaron Tveit is honest, thrilling and vocally commanding performance as Frank, Jr., handling all the vocal and acting demands of the Shaiman/Wittman score with ease, and establishing great rapport with all of his co-stars. His love duet, "Seven Wonders," with Kerry Butler's Brenda is one of the show's most touching moments. As the slow but steady Hanratty, Norbert Leo Butz etches another indelible character leading man turn in a career that has made him one of Broadway's main go to guys. He excels in the rapid-fire delivery of lyrics in his opening solo "Here I Am (To Save The Day)" and, together with Tom Wopat's Frank, Sr., nails the bluesy and moving duet "Little Boy Be A Man." Wopat is flat out wonderful as the hard luck dreamer dad, and Shaiman and Wittman have given him and Tveit a father/son duet, "Butter Out of Cream," which is a touching nod in the direction of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's "High Hopes."

With such a strong male focus in the story, it is a credit to the talented ladies that their characters are not lost in the shuffle. Kerry Butler makes Brenda a tad clueless but always sympathetic (one suspects her character will be developed further pre-Broadway), and raises the roof with her soul-stirring act two solo ballad, "Fly, Fly Away." Rachel de Benedet brings continental blonde beauty, class and a warm center to the role of Frank Jr.'s mother Paula and sublimely shares the seductively film noir flavored "Don't Be A Stranger" with stage spouse Wopat. Felicia Finley shines in her scene as Cheryl Ann, a pricey dame who ends up paying out for a date with Frank, Jr. and socks across her solo, "You Gotta Pay for Love."

With even less to do, stellar veteran performers Linda Hart and Nick Wyman as Brenda's southern-fried parents anchor a crowd-pleasing singalong to the deliciously daffy "Bury Me Beside the One I Love" (and what a way with an accordion Miss Hart has!). There is nice interplay between Butz's Hanratty and his fellow FBI agents Bill Cod, Todd Branton and Johnny Dollar, portrayed with sly good humor by Timothy McCuen Piggee, Clarke Thorell and Brandon Wardell respectively.

A limber and chameleon-like ensemble have a blast with choreographer Jerry Mitchell's precise, high-octane choreography which catches the styles and eccentricities of sixties television dance numbers ranging from "Hullabaloo" camp quirkiness to "Hollywood Palace" pseudo slickness. David Rockwell's dynamite set design wisely utilizes fragments of settings and relies on excellent projections to depict the many locales covered in the story, and Kenneth Posner delivers an impressive lighting design. And what a wise move to hire the one and only Bob Mackie, the designer synonymous with vintage TV variety costuming, to recreate the era, with glitz, excess, sequins and, all, of course in living color. The strongly tuneful and lyrically clever Shaiman/Wittman score is amply well-served by the fine orchestrations created by Larry Blank and Shaiman himself.

Catch Me if You Can is so new, with so relatively few performances under its belt that it astonished me with just how well-honed it already is. The talent of the cast and the creative team is explosive and infectious. Go to the 5th and catch it while you can, before it flies away to prepare for its promising future on Broadway.

Catch Me if You Can plays Tuesday-Sunday through August 16, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 E. Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$93 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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