Stage Review: Shrill Thrill

Trim back the bombast, and Catch Me If You Can will be a smash.

Robert Frost liked to tell reporters that the secret to writing a good poem is not so much finding the right words as getting rid of the wrong ones. You could say the same for the aspirations of Catch Me If You Can, the 5th Avenue's new bound-for-Broadway musical.Conceptually ambitious and exhilarating in execution, this more-than-you-can-eat pop-art buffet is based on the events burnished in Steven Spielberg's 2002 big-screen adaptation with Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. Here, Aaron Tveit is Frank Abagnale Jr., a check-forging runaway who manages for a time to stay one step ahead of FBI agent Carl Hanratty, played by Norbert Leo Butz—adversaries who come to respect and finally share affection for each other. But like Ginger Rogers, these two riveting leads do their work while performing a series of intended showstoppers.The curtain rises on Abagnale's capture. Before the dick can cuff his collar, Abagnale spins a recapitulation of his life on the lam—naturally by launching into the show's strongest number, "Live in Living Color." It's a soaring U2–meets–Doc Severinsen anthem, introducing a dozen-piece orchestra onstage and a multimedia screen that provides commentary on the action or adds depth to David Rockwell's sterling set designs.In short order, Abagnale's family is introduced. Rachel De Benedet is Frank's French war-bride mother and the reliable Tom Wopat weaves a few thankless lines into a memorable character as Frank Sr. When that family implodes, 17-year-old Frank decides to take to the road, first mastering the art of forgery, then passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor, and finally a lawyer before the denouement.Composing team Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (the pair behind Hairspray) offer more memorable tunes here than any three Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals of the past 20 years. Each number is delivered as if something monumental is at stake—which on the one hand is admirable, but on occasion tilts toward manic and forced. That's a lot of unrelenting bombast for a three-hour show, particularly one overgrown with too many songs with too little justification.When Frank decides to make a new identity for himself, a tune like "Someone Else's Skin" makes perfect sense. When he's in New Orleans impersonating a doctor and getting engaged to the daughter of a scion of the South, having them take a dozen minutes to meander through "Bury Me Beside the One I Love" is baffling—especially when the tune suggests that the composers know less about New Orleans than a pig does about Sunday. Making it a "sing-along,"complete with follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics, doesn't make it more fun. It makes patrons feel as though they've dropped big bucks to get into some antiquated pizza parlor.When Kerry Butler, as Frank's intended, delivers her pièce de résistance, the tune becomes what music of the era never was—histrionic. That's not Butler's fault. That's an issue for music director John McDaniel and stage director Jack O'Brien. There are other anachronisms as well (did I really hear someone say "chill out" in a piece set 40 years ago?), but the good news is that all this dross could be cut away surgically to leave a hella satisfying show in its place.Stylistically, Catch Me is an unqualified triumph. While any number of shows genuflect to visual touchstones of the '60s and early '70s (here that means innumerable nods to the era's TV spy and variety series), few of them actually reconstitute the period without some winking irony or kitsch. And Jerry Mitchell's choreography carries that contagiously mindless pizzazz that thrilled TV viewers from the heyday of Dean Martin up through the last hurrah of Carol Burnett.As a work in progress, Catch Me is well in sight of attaining its Broadway goals. Now if the creators can simply separate the wheat from the chaff, the show will be 30 minutes shorter and 50 percent better before it leaves

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