BWW Reviews: Charmingly Flawed CATCH ME IF YOU CAN Lands in L.A.
When you think about the short list of studio films that have came out in the past few decades that should be repurposed as giant Broadway stage musical spectacles, director Steven Spielberg's 2002 zippy goose-chase Catch Me If You Can seemed like a very unlikely---albeit, also very intriguing---candidate for the fast track. And yet here it is, a non-Equity touring version of the short-lived 2011 four-time Tony nominated show, now on a two-week layover at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through March 24.
While certainly a fun, buoyant little show---featuring some enjoyable music from HAIRSPRAY composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, as well as a very likable, extremely talented young actor at the center of its semi-autobiographical tale of successful grifting---CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: THE MUSICAL focuses much of its creative raison d'être on its eye-catching razzle dazzle, and not enough on the fascinating story that's bubbling underneath. It's kind of a shocking shortcoming considering the book is by none other than the prolific Terrence McNally.
Here, the narrative serves simply as a framing device---dare I say, a pesky interrupter---to the whiz-bang, fully-staged musical numbers rousingly choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. No pun intended... but Frankly, it wasn't a completely offensive thing, even if most of the numbers don't exactly aid in the story moving forward. Genuinely entertaining though not especially groundbreaking, this musical adaptation of the DreamWorks film (itself adapted from the central character's published biography) is presented as a series of individual musical production vignettes as if under the guise of a TV Variety show. The conceit works in terms of grand-slam musical presentation, but it rings a bit hollow for an audience to really be that emotionally invested in the characters---well, save for its charming main character.
Following the real-life story of accomplished teen scam artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. (played by the exceptional Stephen Anthony), the musical begins at the airport where harried FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Merritt David Janes) and his fellow agents have finally caught up with the smart kid that has eluded them for quite a while. By this time, Abagnale---just shy of 18 years old---has defrauded a staggering sum total of almost $2 Million! Understandably, it's difficult to figure out whether his exploits deserve to be applauded or derided.
Suddenly, a panicked Abagnale decides to break the fourth wall to tell his tale---in the form of a televised variety show, that by-gone genre that's still a popular form of TV show everywhere but in the U.S. Sure, it's a clever tactic, but it's also the reason the narrative feels like an afterthought. The monochromatic airport set then changes to reveal not only an on-stage orchestra (conducted by Matthew Smedal) a lá The Lawrence Welk Show, but a whole new eye-popping 60's color palette via some really nifty digitally-animated projections. Groovy, baby.
Abagnale's motivations to enter a life of secretive criminal activity seems a bit vague throughout the musical (at least, partly until near the end), which can be a bit frustrating. Does he do it because it's easy money? Does he do it because it's effortless and he's bored?Does he do it to make his ne'er-do-well father, Abagnale Sr. (Dominic Fortuna) proud of him? Does he do it for the girls? Does he do it because he just, well, can? Like the show's central character, this musical itself can't pinpoint a decision either.And what's the main word in the phrase "Variety Show?" Variety, of course. From costumes to scenery to the song styles fashioned by Shaiman and Wittman, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN---as prominently displayed in the show's well-branded marketing---is a buffet of 60's leftovers that this very same creative team hadn't already mined in HAIRSPRAY. As Abagnale traverses many aliases, the audience is treated to the swinging cool of airline chic (really, there's something really sophisticated about that long-gone era of uniformed stewardesses that evokes such a visceral air of pleasurable nostalgia), the Marcus Welby-ish vibe of a hospital, and finally the down-home awww-shucks-ness of the South.
Things improve somewhat story-wise during the show's second act, but, unfortunately, the apparent chronology of Abagnale Jr.'s life events dictates that we don't meet a major character until the show's second act: a lovely nurse named Brenda Strong (Aubrey Mae Davis) whom he falls madly in love with---to the point that he wants to quit his life of crime for her. With such a short amount of time left in the show, the audience is asked to connect with a character that's just been introduced, even if she does get an anthemic, 11 o'clock number she belts to the rafters. Too bad. (Plus, just ignore that little factoid that this kid is barely legal and has taken up with a woman old enough to be an experienced nurse).
Though, truth be told, the show's true momentum killer seems to be every scene in which we check back into the life of Frank Sr., an unnecessarily highlighted role that's a bit of a speed bump. While I understand that perhaps this was done as a contrast to the blossoming pseudo father-son relationship that Frank Jr. develops with his chaser, Agent Hanratty, Daddy Abagnale just brings everything to a screeching halt.
With that said, hands down, the show's best and most important asset is its hard-working cast, particularly the kid in the middle of it all. As Frank Jr., baby-faced Anthony is believably charming and is blessed with an incredible tonal quality in his lovely singing voice (he's a nice follow-up to the musical's original Frank Jr., Aaron Tveit). He also definitely looks the part---did this guy just turn 16, like, yesterday?! His counterpart, Janes, who plays Frank Jr.'s main "adversary" is a fun actor to watch, especially when trading quips with his fellow FBI agents and his slippery perp.
Under the direction of Jack O'Brien (who also helmed the show's 2009 out-of-town tryouts in Seattle and the 2011 Broadway production), the show, overall, is a surprisingly fun, briskly-paced juggernaut of smart-alecky barbs and admirable songs, all delivered by a plucky, aim-to-please ensemble. Mitchell's glamazonian choreography is a genuine delight no matter where it shows up, and here, it's no exception. There's also an undeniably cool, kitschy 60's vibe (still enjoying a resurgence thanks to Mad Men) that retro-philes will no doubt soak up. And, of course, it really helps to have a likable anti-hero played by an instantly likable actor.
Though hampered by an averagely-executed narrative, the show is still an entertaining stage musical that will likely best serve many regional houses for years to come. Underneath the fluffy, groovy, nostalgia-baiting beats lies a musical that celebrates smart mavericks and their envious ingenuity. And while I had plenty of chances to laugh and smile throughout the show, I did not walk away thinking this merits a repeat viewing. But I may have to grab the soundtrack at some point.
To put it in terms of the show's Pan-Am vibe: the take-off was nice, the ride was a bit turbulent, but the landing was smoother than I expected. But forgive me if I book myself on a different airline next time.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos by Carol Rosegg, courtesy of the Pantages Theatre.
Performances of Troika Entertainment's production of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre continue through March 24 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org.