Style over substance was the motto of Frank Abagnale Jr., and the musical about him seems to abide by the same rules. Catch Me If You Can, currently playing at the Neil Simon Theater, is a flashy and fun spectacle whose glitz overshadows its substance. With a book by Terrence McNally, music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and direction by Jack O’Brien, the musical is about Frank Abagnale Jr., based on his book and the Stephen Spielberg movie of the same name.
Frank, who ran away from a broken home as a 16 year old, passed more than $2 million worth of bad checks while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer before being caught by Carl Hanratty, an FBI agent who pursued him for more than three years. The show opens with Frank being captured by Hanratty, and it is framed around Frank telling the story of his life to the onlookers, acting as emcee and star of the show.
After Frank promises the audience a story with “more curves than a Playboy bunny,” the stage promptly transforms into a 1960s-style variety show, complete with an onstage orchestra and a group of leggy female backup dancers choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. The music mainly consists of the decade-appropriate pastiche such as Rat-Pack style numbers or wistful blues songs. There is no lack of glitz or glamour (or leg) onstage, and the song “Jet Set,” which narrates Frank’s entrance into the airline industry, is an especially enjoyable moment in Act One.
Starring Aaron Tveit as Abagnale and Norbert Leo Butz as Hanratty, Catch Me If You Can has charisma and talent to spare. Tveit, who was both outstanding and overlooked as the sinister son Gabe in Next to Normal, possesses the charm necessary to make Frank’s actions believable. He successfully portrays Frank’s youth and naiveté as well as the hero worship of his father, but his charm and boyish good looks make his successful seduction of numerous airline stewardesses believable as well. Tveit is an undeniably talented singer, dancer and actor, and at times one wishes he had better material to work with. (The love song, “Seven Wonders,” sung to his love interest played by Kerry Butler, is cringe-worthy, despite his tender rendition of it.) But his exuberant performance makes the lack of solid material almost overlookable.
Joining Tveit in a tour-de-force performance is Butz, playing Hanratty, the Javert to Frank’s Valjean. The role of Hanratty has been tailored to Butz’s unique talent and seemingly limitless energy and the result is nothing short of astounding. Butz embraces Hanratty’s schlubby, limping and latently intense characteristics and he utilizes them to make the role truly interesting. His performance of the song, “Don’t Break The Rules,” which explains his career in law enforcement is captivating, complete with frantic, flailing and unapologetically dorky dance steps. In contrast, his blues-style song, “The Man Inside the Clues,” which he sings while he inspects an abandoned hotel room Frank recently fled, is surprisingly touching and sad.
Frank’s father is played by Tom Wopat, in an understated performance. Wopat’s rich vocals and smooth performance explain the adolescent Frank’s hero-worship of his father. Rachel de Benedet is underused as Frank’s mother, a former French dancer. As Brenda Strong, the earnest and hard-working nurse that Frank falls in love with, Butler is very miscast. She is too old for the part, which seems to be written to personify youth and innocence. (Maybe that’s why so many of her costumes are pink?) And while her vocals are impressive, her performance of “Fly, Fly Away” is awkward. She seems to have taken some cues from Butz’s arm-flailing, but that kind of action does not belong in a tragic love ballad.
Catch Me If You Can is truly enjoyable to watch, but at times the book lags and the concept of Frank telling his story to the audience flounders. The characterizations sometimes lack depth, or, when the action onstage slows, one thinks, “What just happened?” But then Tveit appears out of nowhere, to pour a drink or narrate a scene, and you are drawn back into the show. As Frank, he is impossible to resist.
Frank fled his parent’s house in search of a home. He does not find his during the show, but Tveit is certainly at home in a leading role on Broadway. Let’s hope he stays there.