Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Starring Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit
Neil Simon Theatre on 52nd Street
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Start with this as a premise: Musicals are fragile. Even one with the show biz muscle and energy of a world-champion athlete can be brought down by something as small as a cold germ.

                  Catch Me if You Can is a head-scratcher for any serious aficionado of musical theatre because on a craft level it gets most things right, and on a quality level it features first rate execution…but it still doesn’t…well, “work” isn't quite the word. It works as it intends to. But it doesn’t land.

                  Certainly it tells a potentially compelling enough story, a true one, about two guys: our (anti-) hero, Frank Abagnale, Jr. (an aggressively charming Aaron Tveit), a young con-man, forger, imposter and escape artist of the early 60s, who passed $2.6 million in meticulously forged checks across 26 countries over the course of five years, starting when he left home at the age of 16; and FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz as you’ve never seen him before, in perhaps his most delightful character turn), the seemingly plodding but driven and meticulous investigator who finally tracked Abagnale down and arrested him. (In real life, after serving a five year prison sentence, Abagnale became, among other things, a security consultant for the FBI; a function he still performs.)

                  When the musical opens, just at the point of Abagnale’s arrest at an airport, the story sort of magically converts itself into the form of an odyssey-cum-TV Variety show—the kind that would have its roots in the singing host's nightclub act (I mean that literally, it’s a very intentional style announcement) and Abagnale, with the pre-emptive force of his conman’s patter, convinces Hanratty to hold off arresting him just long enough for him to tell the audience his story, that we might see the real truth. Hanratty resists at first but ultimately must agree (otherwise there’s no show) and a jazzy, Vegas-spirited evening ensues. Its book (by the redoubtable Terrence McNally) is lively and witty; its score (by the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman on music and Shaiman and Scott Wittman on lyrics) is often infectious and energizing—and there’s a passel of interesting supporting characters, most particularly Abagnale’s parents, gambler and club crooner Frank Sr. (Tom Wopat) and his socialite mom, Paula (Rachel de Benedet), all played by a winning and first-rate cast. Add fine choreography by Jerry Mitchell and smart-as-usual direction by Jack O’Brien.

                  So what’s the problem?

                  I think it’s that beat at the airport. That deal between Frank and Carl and the variety show framework it triggers. The motivation for Frank to tell his true story is mild, because in the end it won’t stop him being arrested, nor can we in the audience “help” him with anything (i.e. when Salieri addresses us in Amadeus, he’s clearly seeking absolution for his moral crime; when Chuck Baxter addresses us in Promises, Promises, he’s tacitly using us as a sounding board to assist him in working out a problem; Tom tells us about his sister in The Glass Menagerie because he needs closure and forgiveness for having had to leave her); our reaction won’t stop him getting arrested, all he really wants is approval.

                  Problem is, he’s a con man. Problem is, he’s chosen the least sincere medium for his story possible—a nightclub-style "narrative revue." Problem is, he’s untrustworthy, and in telling his tale in untrustworthy terms, literally compounds the felony. So while we can admire his resourcefulness, we can’t really endorse the ride. The style decision throws all the rest into a cocked hat.

                  The result is that Catch Me If You Can manages to be both exuberant, professional, entertaining musical theatre and at the same time terribly unsatisfying. Worth your attention to be sure…but not able to capture your sympathy…and your empathy only, ultimately, goes to Carl. And with one “pathy” missing, and the other “pathy” disproportionate, you come dangerously close to that third, dreaded “pathy” that starts with a. Not so close, in this case, that the show leaves you unaffected. But close enough that it…well…leaves you…

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