Monday, August 22, 2011

THEATER: Catch Me If You Can

"Live in Living Color" boasts the opening number of Catch Me If You Can: The Broadway Musical, with Frank Abagnale, Jr., on the verge of being arrested at the Miami International Airport, convincing Agent Carl Hanratty of the FBI to let him tell his story to the audience. And yet, the show is dulled from the get-go by a by-the-numbers Sinatraesthetic style of playing it cool, which plays very much against the showier strengths of choreographer Jerry Mitchell (La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) and the inventiveness of Jack O'Brien (The Coast of Utopia). The two are hard-pressed to do much of anything with David Rockwell's sliding bandstand of a set taking up most of the stage, and even playwright Terrence McNally seems limited, though it's hard to blame the source material, which Spielberg managed to make sparkle. The first sign of life doesn't come until halfway through the first act, with Hanratty's spastic (and Tony-winning, for Norbert Leo Butz) "Don't Break the Rules," which says a lot about the dangers of mounting a show that does nothing but follow the rules.

Catch Me If You Can is perfectly inoffensive: with neither the shock of The Book of Mormon nor the "awe" of Spider-man, there's nothing here you can't see elsewhere. Or perhaps it is offensive, in that it wastes the talents of Kerry Butler, who, as Frank's girlfriend, has but two songs in the second act, one of which ("Fly, Fly Away") gives Butz's heart-wrenching solo, "The Man Inside the Clues," a run for its money. Both actors play characters from the inside-out, an asthmatic cough and wobble in his step there, a fluttery prayer and resolute stomp from her there. Problematically, it's the total opposite of how Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat (Abignales Jr. and Sr.) play their roles, which is entirely with a rocky, unflinching surface that puts all the work on their voice -- beautiful tenor and solid baritone, but as emotionally flat as the rest of the show. (To be fair, Tveit may be held back by the show: he nails his final song, "Good-Bye," in which reality catches up with his character -- the first time he's ever really tested.)

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the show is the structure, which insists on reminding the audience that it's a musical. When The Drowsy Chaperone breaks the fourth wall, it's to welcome you to a world of imagination; when Catch Me If You Can does, it's because it can't find any other way to frame the narrative. At least the former knew that it was an homage to classic archetypes and melodies; it's unclear what the latter thinks its doing when three members of the chorus sing a quick ditty while dressed up as Frank's trusty scissors, India ink, and glue. It's one thing to paint neon targets on the backs of some dancers so as to morph scenery into a song; it's another to trot out dancing girls in wreathes for "Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year," or are not supposed to be taking any of this seriously?

They say that all criminals secretly long to be caught, so perhaps that's why Catch Me If You Can keeps daring the audience to notice how cheap and tacky it is. (Or is the two-dimensional "plane" that swings down in the background supposed to make Frank's forged Pan Am license seem more authentic by comparison?) If that's the case, consider this show a success . . . in that enough people have caught on to its mediocrity: the show closes September 4th.

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