Catch Me if You Can

If I had to describe Catch Me if You Can in one sentence, it would be this: It’s a fun musical with a lot of heart, albeit one in which the fantastic performances transcend just-good material. That’s not to say that the material, specifically the book and the score, is bad, more so it is to say that in comparison to other new musicals opening this season it seems a little lacking, and also that the performances are really terrific.

Catch Me if You Can tells the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Aaron Tveit), a man who, at just 16, ran away from home, became a successful forger and conned his way into careers as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, all before turning 21. After being caught by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz), Abagnale served some time and then went to work for the bureau, where for over 35 years he served as an expert in stopping the kinds of crimes he used to commit. Abagnale wrote about his life’s story and the juicy, conman parts were the subject of the 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio-Tom Hanks film, also called Catch Me if You Can. Those same parts are theatricalized now at the Neil Simon theatre (after a run in Seattle in summer 2009), and it makes for a fun night of theatre.

This show, like some of the other new musicals on the boards this spring, is a fairly traditional book musical (the book was written by multiple Tony winner Terrence McNally), even going so far as to use the show-within-a-show device to tell the story. (I know I keep mentioning that new shows are using traditional form; this is noteworthy because there has been a pattern in musical theatre, lately, of non-traditional form and/or scores. For example, last season’s American Idiot and this season’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I love both those musicals and do not want to diminish the modernity of their storytelling techniques. I simply think it’s worth noting that this spring we’re seeing a bit of a throw back to American musical theatre’s roots.) We meet Frank Jr. in an airport in Miami. He is about to be caught by Agent Hanratty but pleads with the suit to have a chance to tell his side. He envisions a television special, like the ones he grew up watching at home with his parents in the late 50s and early 60s. What follows is Frank’s story - with mostly the same scenes as the film. (No surprise there, since there is a real-life chronology here.) These visions include plenty of chorus girls and guys, the Frank Abagnale, Jr. Players, and crowd pleasing winks and nods and mugging from the cast, particularly our guide, Frank, as portrayed by the incomparable Aaron Tveit.

Tveit is so deliciously good here. He was sinisterly seductive as Gabe in Next to Normal (a role and performance for which he should have been a Tony winner but the nominating committee didn’t even nominate him because they were on crack... or something) and while he most certainly seduces the audience here in Catch Me if You Can - he owns the show and every single audience member the moment he comes on stage - he does so with a slick and suave demeanor. Tveit as Abagnale could probably charm you in - or out - of anything, and chances are you’d have such a good time you wouldn’t mind the con.

But more than his charisma, Tveit delivers as a powerful triple threat. He is a great actor; beneath all the charm and sophistication, Tveit does an incredible job of never letting the audience forget that Frank Jr is just a lost, lonely boy. You see it in his Sisyphean effort to reunite his parents (Tom Wopat and Rachel de Benedet) - always thinking that if he can just get a little bit more money, excel a little bit more in this or that, then everything at home will be okay. You see it in his late night phone calls to Agent Hanratty, when Frank thinks he’s antagonizing Hanratty but the suit knows better - he knows Frank is longing for a connection to someone. You see it in his tender moments with his first love, Brenda (the wonderful Kerry Butler). (“Seven Wonders” is apt to become a new Broadway love-song standard.) Though his eyes may bug out in an adorable cartoonish manner when he’s come up with a new plan (there’s that charm), Tveit gives a layered performance, finding the real Frank beneath all the fakery.

Moreover, Tveit can move! In the opening number, “Live in Living Color,” Tveit joins the ensemble and kicks up his heels, falling right into place in a kick line of beautiful, leggy chorus girls. His hips move with ease and flair while easily showing his flair for making Jerry Mitchell’s dance moves hip. And, to top it all off, Tveit has an incredible, smooth and powerful voice, which is most affectingly showed off in the penultimate number “Good-Bye.” I already thrill over listening to him on several key tracks from the Next to Normal recording and now I’m looking forward to doing the same with the soon-to-be-recorded Catch Me if You Can album. I’ve always thought of his performance as Gabe as being his breakthrough role, but as the dashing leading (con)man in Catch Me if You Can, a much more accessible and broadly pleasant musical than Next to Normal, Tviet is poised to breakthrough to the mainstream. Look out, because here comes a whole lot of talent in one very handsome package.

Tveit isn’t the entire show, of course. The title is meant to taunt Frank Jr’s eventual captor, Agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tony winner (and perennial favorite of mine) Norbert Leo Butz. Butz won his Tony for playing a conman, Freddy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but this time he plays it straight...well, sort of. The character is a bit schlubby, a man who’s borderline-obsessed with his work, and his demeanor is a bit worse for the wear. Hanratty is nothing if not honest and certainly the straight man - as compared to Frank Jr., but Butz’s performance is full of fun schtick and shows off his quirky dance style and impeccable comedic timing. (On that note, I offer kudos to Butz, the other agents and Catch Me’s director, Jack O’Brien, for pulling off a titillating Abbott and Costello homage, Who’s on Frank? Very funny.)

And though she’s barely seen until the second act, Kerry Butler is pitch perfect as Brenda Strong, Frank’s first love. I remember watching - through tears - Butler sing Brenda’s 11 o’clock number, “Fly, Fly Away,” at a benefit in February 2009 so I was particularly looking forward to seeing and hearing her perform the song within the context of the show. I was not disappointed, and that’s an understatement. It is in that song that we watch Brenda become a woman; she stands up for herself, takes responsibility for her emotions and challenges the world to bring it on. She sings of seeing the real man behind the cons, seeing beyond the labels people put on him and instead falling in love with the young man who’s just looking for a home. Butler brings down the house with her performance and moved me, once again, with the stunning and raw emotion of the song.

Helping bring the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score to life is a full (by today’s musical theatre standards) orchestra, decked out in white-jacket tuxedos and perched on stage on either side of David Rockwell’s set, overlooking the action and looking like they’re playing the Copa. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design also help tell the story, dousing the character in live, living colors or black and white, when appropriate, and distinguishing time, place and relationships with vivid blues and pinks. Catch Me if You Can is still in previews and right now, I would suggest that they need to work on their sound mix, as I had trouble hearing some of the lyrics and dialogue over the music/underscoring. The choreography could also use a little sharpening and I might try to tighten up act one, as it dragged a very little bit. (Act two was much better, flying by and leaving the audience smiling as the curtain rang down.)

But those are mostly minor complaints about an overall fun, splashy, heartfelt new musical. Catch Me if You Can is a great option for a family, and is more broadly appealing than some of the other fair this spring, and that’s without the use of a movie or TV star in the lead role. The poppy, hummable score will be stuck in your head after leaving the theatre, and, if you’re like me, you’ll want to go back just to be charmed by one of Broadway’s most talented young stars, Aaron Tveit.

Visit to learn more about the show (the site has video and song samples!) and to purchase tickets.

Bonus feature: Read through this profile of Tveit from the New York Times. He talks about how he caught the role of Frank and making a name for himself in the biz.