Thursday, May 5, 2011

Catch Me If You Can at the Neil Simon Theatre

Catch Me If You Can, book by Terrance McNally, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, is based on the 2002 film of the same name directed by Steven Spielberg.   The story is based on the true adventures of one of the world's greatest con artists, Frank Abagnale, Jr. who stole millions of dollars through fraud and impersonated a Pan Am pilot, an ER doctor, and a lawyer as well as five other identities, before being caught after five the age of 21.   The real Mr. Abagnale served time in French, Swedish and United States prisons and has since become a consultant in security as the CEO of Abagnale & Associates.    The Spielberg film was highly entertaining yet with a tinge of pathos as the illusions of Frank's high flying lifestyle masked a young man reeling from the break-up of his family and disillusionment over the father whom he worshipped and as in implied in both the film and the Broadway musical taught Frank everything he knew as the father used con techiniques to hide from his family and business associates the true problems in his life.

It is an intriguing premise for a Broadway show which frames the story as Frank Jr.'s recalling of his life's adventures as a slick variety show.   The ensemble becomes the chorus girls and boys that would back up, say, Dean Martin, the orchestra an onstage big band ensemble.   The encounters with people brief and comedic in a wink, wink aren't I a bad boy with charm manner.   Yet, Catch Me If You Can suffers from an identity crisis.   While it contains compelling performances and exhilarating dance numbers, it also has tonal problems mostly caused by a downshift to a romantic detour in Act Two which brings the momentum of the show practically grinding to a halt.   The Thespian understood that this subplot was crucial in demonstrating that this romance was ultimately the roadblock on Frank's high flying successes, yet it felt like the entire sequence came from another show.  

As the disfunctional parents of Frank, Tom Wopat does what he can to bring nuance to the role of Frank, Sr.   The father is as much of a con artist as his son, but in a pitiful way as it is his lying and manipulating of the facts that lead to the crumbling of he Abagnale marriage.  Mr. Wopat is at his most poignant when singing the Act Two ballad, "Little Boy, Be A Man" with Norbert Leo Butz as he passes the fatherly torch to Mr. Butz's Agent Hanratty.   As the beautiful French mother, Paula, Rachel de Benedet is reminscient of an earlier elegant time with a fluid regality in her dancing.   Yet, the mother's role is not as well written so it is difficult to grasp why we should care for her as much as her son does.

As the parents of the love interest, Linda Hart and Nick Wyman are given completely thankless roles.   Their scenes in Act Two desperately cry out to be severely trimmed and its not the actors' faults.   It's just that the amount of time given to what is a fleeting subplot just doesn't fit the puzzle of this show.   While other musicals would have opportunities for persons in small roles such as these to participate in the ensemble numbers, the nature of the "Frank Abagnale, Jr. Dancers" really doesn't lend itself in that manner.

The Thespian's first response to the first appearances of the love interest, Brenda Strong, was "What is an actress of Kerry Butler caliber doing playing a role like that?"  And then the authors gave her a gorgeous ballad, "Fly, Fly Away" and The Thespian's response was "That's why."  The problem is that the role of Brenda just doesn't seem to fit the rest of the show.   She's a sweet, naturalistic girl next door and while that may be the point in her snaring of Frank, Jr.'s affections, the tone of the character and her scenes just don't easily fit the rest of the show.   Ms. Butler is an amazing actress and elevates this character, but ultimately the role just doesn't work in the context of the entire show.

The true story in the show is where the real focus should have remained, on the cat and mouse relationship between our anti-hero, Frank, Jr. played with boyish exuberance and underlining vulnerability by Aaron Tveit and Agent Carl Hanratty, the no-nonsense FBI agent with a love of film noire, who dogs his every move.   Agent Hanratty is played by the amazing Norbert Leo Butz who is truly a master of musical character acting and has been deservedly rewarded with a Tony nomination for his performance.

It is not Mr. Tveit's fault that his character is difficult to like, it's just that the authors have written Agent Hanratty better and given his character the best musical numbers.  Other reviewers have mentioned not liking the idea that Frank, Jr. narrates the show.  The Thespian was not bothered by that as it is clear that Frank, Jr. always wants to control every aspect of his life.  Mr. Tveit takes Frank, Jr. and creates a charming con man and for a time has the audience rooting for his outrageous stunts.  A beautiful moment occurs near the end of Act One in the number, "My Favorite Time of Year" in which Mr. Tveit allows Frank, Jr. to become the sad teenage boy he really is and the audience gains sympathy for him.  Utimately it is the by the numbers storytelling of --now he's a pilot, now he's a doctor, look's he a lawyer-- that eventually become tedious.   Perhaps by not being so wedded to the episodic nature of the real story would have helped the Act Two audience fatigue that sets in with the character.    Ultimately the audience ends up rooting for Frank, Jr. to realize that his life of crime must end, and that Agent Hanratty must become the moral father figure for Frank, Jr. to emulate.   If that had been explored a bit more the show would be complete.

As for the incredible Mr. Butz, he embodies this G-man as he travels from a no-nonsense get the job done manner to permitting himself to indulge in Frank Jr.'s fantasy world, but on his terms.   The dime novel noire of Agent Hanratty's side of the story becomes the best part of the show.   Mr. Butz even manages to keep the government schlub in his dancing.  There are no clean lines and slick moves here, just a round shouldered rumpled suit who brings down the house when he cuts loose.

Catch Me If You Can is by no means a perfect show.  Yet it is worth seeing for the performances of Aaron Tveit, Kerry Butler and Norbert Leo Butz.

Catch Me If You Can is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway through September 4, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit

1 comment:

  1. Norbert Leo Butz won Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical at the 2011 Tony Awards on June 12, 2011.