After the dizzying heights of Follies, it was destined that I would have to come back down to the muddy earth. My means of conveyance out of the theatrical stratosphere was, appropriately enough, Catch Me If You Can. The musical version of the movie about the infamous airborne con artist, Frank Abagnale Jr., Catch Me If You Can doesn’t crash and burn so much as its engines combust upon ignition and the whole thing smolders in flames on the runway for an excruciating two and a half hours.
The main reason this show fails the moment it begins is because of the framing device used to tell the story. The curtain comes up on a chaotic chase through Miami International Airport, where hangdog federal agent Carl Hanratty (played by Norbert Leo Butz) has finally apprehended young Abagnale (played by Aaron Tveit). Before Hanratty can close the cuffs, Abagnale has convinced the curious witnesses to listen to his story. Butz is forced to deliver some horribly baiting line along the likes of, “No more song-and-dance for you, buddy!”, and suddenly we’re being dragged against our will into The Frank Abagnale, Jr. Variety Hour. Flanked by flapping chorines, Frank invites us to hear his story, “Live in Living Color”.
The real Frank Abagnale, Jr. insinuated himself into a lot of professions. He ran his schemes in fields like travel, law, and medicine. Do you know what professional world he never once had anything to do with? Television! Television was never a part of Frank’s life story. He didn’t do what he did to be famous. There is no reason for his story to be told anyway but straightforward. It’s already an outrageous and singular tale. It doesn’t require any help in standing out from the way you tell it. My guess is that this decision is partly because book writer Terrence McNally and the composer/lyricist duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman could think of no other way to turn this story into an integrated musical, and partly to cash in on the completely misplaced 1960s nostalgia that is so in vogue these days (and which I plan to systematically dismantle in a forthcoming post).
My heart goes out to the members of the cast, Butz and Tveit especially, because they do have genuine talent. Sure, Butz’s big number in Act I devolved into a vaguely minstrel-like gospel/R&B frenzy, and Tveit may be easy on the eyes and ears even though he lacks serious stage presence, but they deserve better. The score by Shaiman and Wittmann is terribly underwhelming, with lazy lyrics and derivative melodies. Jerry Mitchell must have passed this off to his latest associates, as there was nothing remotely memorable about the choreography. And director Jack O’Brien fails to make proper use of the space available, or to create any character with depth besides the male leads, who are already admittedly quick studies. Save for McNally, this is the same creative team that gave us Hairspray, one of musical theater’s most infectious confections. What the hell happened, guys?
Don’t let the hype around its Labor Day closing con you. Catch Me If You Can should not be caught.