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Broadway Reviews

Catch Me If You Can

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 10, 2011

Catch Me If You Can - The Musical Based on the DreamWorks Motion Picture. Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music Direction by John McDaniel. Orchestrations by Marc Shaiman & Larry Blank. Arrangements by Marc Shaiman. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Wig & hair design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, starring Tom Wopat, Rachel de Benedet, Linda Hart, Nick Wyman, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Joe Cassidy, Timothy McCuen Piggee, Brandon Wardell, Sara Andreas, Alex Ellis, Will Erat, Jennifer Frankel, Lisa Gajda, Bob Gaynor, Kearran Giovanni, Nick Kenkel, Grasan Kingsberry, Michael X. Martin, Aleks Pevec, Kristin Piro, Rachelle Rak, Joe Aaron Reid, Angie Schworer, Sabrina Sloan, Sarrah Strimel, Charlie Sutton, Katie Webber, Candice Marie Woods, and Kerry Butler.
Theatre: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $69.75 - $144.75
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Aaron Tveit and the women of the ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sixties camp may have soared in the 2002 Broadway musical Hairspray, but that's not why it ran over six years. Flooded with the belief that life can always get better, as well as a strong plot, characters you cared about, and illuminative songs, the show became a monster smash thanks to good-old-fashioned musical-comedy thinking. Though it's surprising that almost that show's entire creative team has decided to go a different direction with their new musical, Catch Me If You Can, which just opened at the Neil Simon, it's not at all shocking that by abandoning nearly everything that made their previous show work, this one is a full-blown failure.

How can established hands like Jack O'Brien (direction), Jerry Mitchell (choreography), Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (music and lyrics), and designers David Rockwell (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Kenneth Posner (lights), now paired with librettist Terrence McNally (as doctored by Brian Yorkey) have fallen so far? It's because, in their eagerness to force into being another Hairspray, they lost sight of the fact that they should have been trying to fashion another Chicago.

Yes, it's that Kander-Ebb-Fosse razzle-dazzler, which continues to run in revival just a few blocks away, that ought to have served as the model for this musical glorifying the American thief. That show understands that making popular heroines of merry murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly is in no way easy, but requires intense management of tone and rigorous respect for what a theatrical audience will and will not accept. It holds up Roxie and Velma as a paragons of nothing, yet elevates them to stardom on the backs of our own indifference: Their success is our failure.

The 2002 DreamWorks movie on which the musical is religiously based does impart some glamor in depicting the deception-fueled rise of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., from New York teenager to check forger to Pan-Am copilot to doctor to lawyer to lover to inmate to security consultant. But it also gives the grit and guts of Frank's comeuppance, which was given considerable screen time. And in the real Abagnale's original memoir (the source for the film), the author's precisely articulated smug self-satisfaction inspires your revulsion as much as your admiration.

Aaron Tveit leads the ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Onstage, Catch Me If You Can does none of this. It celebrates at the expense of all else the fun, sex, and faint danger that Frank (Aaron Tveit) generates with his exploits. Sure, he's ostensibly chased all around the country by a government agent, Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz), but the show, like Frank, is more interested in the good times along the way that you're never allowed to perceive any real threat. That, alas, is crucial—without it, we're left with an earnestness the despicable Frank has not earned. The musical's authors have more or less implemented a concept to remedy this: a Hullabaloo-like variety special, complete with bandstand-bound orchestra (led by musical director John McDaniel) that Frank summons in the first scene, to explain his life story to Hanratty because—well, because otherwise there would be no show.

But this move places us at such an emotional remove from Frank, and introduces so much new artifice, we can't care about why he embarks on a life of crime (to “repay” the government for its wealth-destroying treatment of his father, played by Tom Wopat), the way he falls in love with a young nurse named Brenda (Kerry Butler) he meets while “playing” doctor, or the redemption he's supposed to find when his carefully counterfeited house of checks comes crashing down around him. Because there's nothing about Frank that's good—even in The Music Man, Harold Hill unintentionally accomplishes decent things—we need all the help we can get, and we get none. (That the framework doesn't even make dramatic sense, violating its own rules by starting well after the show does and eventually featuring narration from other characters, is almost incidental.)

The book is a warmed-over and flabbed-up version of the movie's screenplay, absent the laughs and occasional charm. The score is a random grab-bag of 60s song styles, nowhere near as memorable or clever as Hairspray's, but as melodically harmless as it is dramatically inert. If excitement is nil, real problems are few, with “Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year” (which sounds exactly as its title indicates) an impressively wayward first-act finale, and “(Our) Family Tree,” in which Frank cavorts with Brenda and her parents in a literal Sing Along with Mitch extravaganza, one of the season's most egregious misuses of stage time.

As for everything else: O'Brien's direction is uncharacteristically shallow, Mitchell's dances are at their most plastically generic, and aside from Ivey Long's knockout microskirts for stewardesses and nurses, the design elements look cheaper, uglier, and less inventive than on the average episode of Laugh-In. Wonderful but wasted performers litter the company: from the slyly amiable Wopat to the gorgeous but barely there Rachel de Benedet as Frank's mother, to Nick Wyman and Linda Hart as Brenda's parents. Butler makes the most of her role's awkward comedy, but in neither that nor her only solo, “Fly, Fly Away,” as Frank eludes capture for the final time, does she evince the capricious zing she's brought to Bat Boy, Xanadu, or a certain other Shaiman-Wittman outing.

Tom Wopat and Norbert Leo Butz
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tveit, so dynamic as the son in Next to Normal, is simply not up to the challenge of carrying a production this flimsy on his shoulders. His pop tenor voice is adept but lacks color, and when headlining any of the show's yawningly explosive dance numbers, he disappears into the chorus he's leading. He also overplays Frank's likeability, employing a plastered-on boy-next-door grin that only exacerbates the script's latent troubles; without the kind of unruly-rebel edge Leonardo DiCaprio brought to the part in the film, Frank does not make an impact.

Butz, however, does, finding all the magnetism, devotion, and desolation possible in Hanratty. His first-act number, “Don't Break the Rules,” in which he lays out his law-enforcement philosophy while highlighting his own discomfort at singing and dancing, is the closest thing here to a real showstopper. You're invested not just in why Hanratty will track down Frank, but how he'll do it within the boundaries of the musical comedy in which he's trapped. (Butz's reluctant arm flicks and kicks are priceless, character-rich dancing.) It's the centerpiece of Butz's excellent portrayal, which oscillates between genuine concern for Frank and his country, and sympathy for the brilliant boy who never got the direction he so obviously needed.

“Don't Break the Rules” would be even better if it didn't start in a firing range in which Hanratty and his buddies are practicing their gun work—without wearing ear protectors. This is yet another example, in a show bursting with them, that the crisp professionalism of O'Brien, Shaiman, Wittman, and Mitchell's last show together has morphed here into a shambling amateur hour (okay, really two and a half) devoid of attention to detail and common sense. That previous collaboration may have been a hit, but Catch Me If You Can is a big, bloated miss.

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