At various points throughout the new musical Catch Me If You Can, leading man Aaron Tveit turns to the audience to flash a toothy grin amid the glow of a pin spot to indicate that his character is getting away with yet another con job. Fans of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying will no doubt recognize this iconic moment as having been shamelessly stolen from that vastly superior musical, currently enjoying a smashing revival just a few blocks down from Catch Me If You Can.
This purloined stage ploy is sadly indicative of the overall lack of inventiveness on stage at the Neil Simon Theatre, which is ironic, given the ingenuity of the show's central character, Frank Abagnale, Jr., immortalized in the eponymous 2002 Stephen Spielberg movie.
Catch Me If You Can essentially amounts to a re-teaming of the creative crew from Hairspray: composer Marc Shaiman, lyricists Shaiman and Scott Wittman, director Jack O'Brien, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell (with Terrence McNally subbing here for Hairspray librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan). It's rather sad to contemplate that, after years of developing Catch Me If You Can, these otherwise formidable gentlemen couldn't devise anything better than this irritating mishmash of unclear intentions and enervating execution.
Despite the old adage, lightning can indeed strike twice in the same place, both meteorologically and metaphorically. Rodgers and Hammerstein followed Oklahoma! with the even more artistically ambitious Carousel. And most of the creators from West Side Story (with the notable exception of Leonard Bernstein) came together again to produce what may be an even better show, Gypsy. Granted, there are even more examples along the annals of musical-theater history when success did not beget success, but I just wanted to launch a preemptive strike against any simplistic "sophomore slump" analyses.
The problems with Catch Me If You Can are legion, starting with the very conception of the show. I've not seen the Spielberg movie, but from what I hear it does a much better job of making Abagnale's life interesting and making the man himself rather charming. Creating a musical around an antihero, or a person of questionable morals and motivation, is always a tricky business, but it's certainly been done effectively, and many times before. (See Gypsy, The Music Man, Pal Joey, My Fair Lady, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sweeney Todd, Chicago, Show Boat, Nine, Falsettos, Evita, Jelly's Last Jam, The Producers, 110 in the Shade, Carousel, etc.)
But Terrence McNally and crew haven't succeeded in demonstrating what makes Abagnale appealing, nor in clarifying exactly what we're supposed to take away from his story. Are we to admire Abagnale? Pity him? Is this a cautionary tale? If so, what's the lesson? I'm sure someone could have made this musical compelling, but you'd think Terrence McNally, one of our most esteemed playwrights (Love! Valour! Compassion!, Master Class) and most experienced librettists (Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Full Monty) could have worked it out. But if McNally couldn't find the humor and the pathos in this story, what chance would mere mortals have?
O'Brien and Mitchell seem to have understood that the show they had wasn't really going to work, so they devised a framing device for the show, but I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly what it is. We appear to be plunked in the midst of a Vegas lounge act, or a bad TV variety show, with characters breaking the fourth wall and engaging in meta-discussions about putting on a performance. But not only is the exact nature of the framing device itself a bit of a mystery, it's also not clear exactly what it's supposed to mean. That Abagnale's life was all just one big show? I sincerely hope the creators were going for something just a bit more inspired than that.
Lost amid the clutter and confusion are some of Broadway's most talented and reliable performers, including Norbert Leo Butz as FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks in the Spielberg movie), Tom Wopat as Abagnale, Sr. (Christopher Walken), and Kerry Butler as Brenda Strong (Amy Adams). Each performer gets his or her moment to shine, and some of the bits come close to making the show at least marginally entertaining. Butz has the big showstopper in the first act, and he's terrific as always. And Butler gets a killer 11 o'clock number, and sings the living hell out of it too, but the song comes along just as the chase is wrapping up and it robs the second act of momentum. (Can you say, "The Miller's Son"?)
I think Catch Me If You Can will last until the Tony Awards, but I can't imagine it winning anything, except maybe for one of the performers. Then I see the show closing sometime between June and September. The season already has its share of smash hits (The Book of Mormon, Anything Goes, War Horse) and solid successes (How to Succeed, Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Even in the best of times, that's more than any one season can really support. And Catch Me If You Can isn't worth supporting.