Theater Review: 'Catch Me If You Can' Looks Good But Lacks Heart

This musical adaptation of the Steven Spielberg film scores on showmanship but shortchanges its lead character.

The musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg's hit film stars Aaron Tveit as Frank Abagnale Jr., the real-life con man originally played by Leonardo Dicaprio.

NEW YORK – The super-slick new musical from the Hairspray team boasts superb craftsmanship, sophisticated design work, tuneful songs in a breezy range of ‘60s styles and a deluxe cast. So why does Catch Me If You Can stubbornly refuse to soar until it’s almost over?

The fault is not in the execution. Director Jack O’Brien’s staging and choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s tight, sexy dance routines practically hum with precision. The challenge is the source material itself.

Based on the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, the show chronicles the true adventures in crime of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Aaron Tveit). Before being captured in the mid-1960s while not yet 20, Frank had spent two years bouncing checks across the globe, passing himself off as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. That makes him an elusive character, which is a great quality in a con man, but not always so great in a musical-theater protagonist, even if it did work for Harold Hill in The Music Man.

More than who or what Frank is, however, the problem is the way he’s presented. Late in the show, we come to see him as a lost boy, trying on multiple identities in an attempt to fill the void of his broken family. But such insight comes less through Frank himself than through Brenda (Kerry Butler), the young nurse with whom he falls in love in an underdeveloped romance. Her surging 11 o’clock number, “Fly, Fly Away,” packs more emotional charge than the rest of the show combined.

O’Brien and book writer Terrence McNally do a tidy job of conveying the shifting locations and compressing the cat-and-mouse story of Frank’s capers and his dogged pursuit by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz) into a brisk narrative. Their main expedient is Frank’s fantasy, upon being apprehended at Miami airport, of his life as a lavish TV variety spectacular. That framing device is fun, even if it’s one more element that distances us from the central character.

In hurtling from one snappy number to the next, O’Brien and McNally skim over the heart of the material, denying us a deeper connection to Frank. The IRS woes and money mismanagement of his father, Frank Sr. (Tom Wopat); the loss of their home; the infidelity of his French mother, Paula (Rachel de Benedet); his parents’ divorce and custody hearing; Frank Jr. running away at 16 – these formative episodes are all played for speed, not pathos. Frank is clearly a chip off the old block, but despite Wopat’s tender work, their bond doesn’t resonate until much later.

What we get is Frank’s restless adventure, without sharing the unhappiness that drives his escape. Just one reflective song might have fixed this. Instead, all the glossy musical numbers make his exploits a lark in which the audience has no stake. He jumps from success to success without suspense or tension because for too long, there’s no real threat of exposure. It may also undermine Frank’s hold on our affections that the first genuine showstopper goes to Hanratty, with Butz unleashing his inner Cab Calloway on the rousing “Don’t Break the Rules.”

Act I closes on “My Favorite Time of Year,” an intimate telephone duet in which the odd kinship between Frank and Carl is suggested. That poignancy is gradually amplified in the superior second act, when Frank finally unmasks something of himself in the penultimate number, “Good-Bye.” But it’s too little too late to make the show as satisfying as it might have been.

There’s nonetheless much to savor in a production polished to a high sheen. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman again prove themselves an ace songwriting team. Their score evokes cocktail lounges, glitzy floorshows, Rat Pack suaveness, mellow jazz and energized go-go, all wrapped up in Shaiman and Larry Blank’s silky-smooth ‘60s-styled orchestrations. And Mitchell’s choreography puts a vigorous period-appropriate spin on every number.

David Rockwell’s sleek set is dominated by an onstage orchestra stand and cascading show curtains, enhanced by witty details to signal different locations. Costumer William Ivey Long dresses the performers sharply, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting expertly juggles Vegas flashiness with noirish shadows.

The cast is top-notch. In an understated turn, Wopat conveys the painful disappointment beneath Frank Sr.’s bravado, while de Benedet quietly suggests self-reproach even as her character disdains introspection. Linda Hart and Nick Wyman get comic mileage out of Brenda’s parents, and while Butler is under-utilized, she’s affecting in her limited stage time, making her one number count.

As Hanratty, Butz (a Tony winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) does nuanced work balancing the jaded, paunchy slob with the wisecracking professional, driven in his quest to catch Frank yet plagued by the melancholy awareness that his job is his life. The boyishly handsome Tveit, who turned heads in Next to Normal, graduates to a lead role with sparkling self-assurance, strong pipes and natural charm. He makes it easy to like Frank, even if the show makes it hard to love him.

Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, Tom Wopat, Kerry Butler, Rachel de Benedet, Linda Hart, Nick Wyman, Joe Cassidy, Timothy McCuen Piggee, Brandon Wardell, Rachelle Rak
Director: Jack O’Brien
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman
Book: Terrence McNally, based on the DreamWorks motion picture
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Choreographer: Jerry Mitchell
Music director: John McDaniel
Orchestrations: Marc Shaiman, Larry Blank
Presented by Margo Lion, Hal Luftig, Stacey Mindich, Yasuhiro Kawana, Scott & Brian Zellinger, Rialto Group, Araca Group, Michael Watt, Barbara & Buddy Freitag, Jay & Cindy Gutterman/Pittsburgh CLO, Elizabeth Williams, Johnny Roscoe Productions/Van Dean, Fakston Productions/Solshay Productions, Patty Baker/Richard Winkler, Nederlander Presentations, Warren Trepp, in association with Remmel T. Dickinson, Paula Herold/Kate Lear, Stephanie McClelland, Jamie deRoy, Barry Feirstein, Rainerio J. Reyes, Rodney Rigby, Loraine Boyle, Amuse Inc., Joseph & Matthew Deitch/Cathy Chernoff, Joan Stein/Jon Murray, 5th Avenue Theatre