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Musical 'Catch Me If You Can' struggles to connect

The Associated Press, Sunday, April 10, 2011, 5:34pm (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- New Broadway shows this spring are lousy with cads. There's J. Pierrepont Finch in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Harry Brock in "Born Yesterday" and pretty much all the dudes in "That Championship Season." With the hero of "Catch Me If You Can," add one more scoundrel.

The musical, which opened Sunday at The Neil Simon Theatre, is based on the 2002 Stephen Spielberg-directed movie about the FBI's chase of a real-life con artist who passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer and a pilot on his way to stealing millions.

Slathered in Technicolor, Pan Am nostalgia and short-skirted dancers, the musical has all the ingredients for a hit: A book by Terrence McNally ("Master Class"), music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman ("Hairspray"), choreography by Jerry Mitchell ("La Cage aux Folles") and direction by Jack O'Brien ("The Coast of Utopia"). All have Tony Awards; all know what they're doing.

And yet there's something here that just isn't connecting, that smacks a bit of a color-by-numbers musical.

A large reason may be the role of the hero, who is, after all, a cipher — a faker, a fraud, a man who is whatever we assume him to be. Beneath the pilot's uniform or doctor's white coat, there's little but a smile and a wink.

"Blink your eyes and I'll be gone," he sings in one song. And he's right: He leaves nothing that resonates behind.

Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, this time the role of Frank Abagnale Jr. has been handed over to Aaron Tveit. As pretty as a Ken doll and blessed with a wonderful voice, Tveit nevertheless struggles to convey genuineness.

A comparison with Daniel Radcliffe in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" may be apt. He, like, Tveit, is also playing a 1960s-era con artist, a striver who uses flattery and manipulation to get ahead. He, like Tveit, grins at the audience when things magically go his way. And yet Radcliffe conveys a charm that Tveit lacks.

Tveit's supporting cast is top-notch, especially Norbert Leo Butz as the FBI agent as obsessed with catching his Great White Whale as Captain Ahab. Butz, who seems to channel the shambling, broken-down TV detective Columbo, is fantastic, though on the verge of trying too hard, almost as if he's overcompensating for his co-star's vapidness.

Tom Wopat and Rachel de Benedet are touching as Frank's parents, but the real crime here is the underuse of Kerry Butler as Frank's love interest, Brenda Strong. Butler ("Xanadu") has a lame, unsexy duet with Frank even though both are semi-naked, but later blows the house down with her solo "Fly, Fly Away." In that one song, she manages to convey more emotion than Tveit has during the entire performance.

The show smartly does not try to retell the film's frantic story: It's framed as a musical variety TV show narrated by Frank and explores his relationship with his father more than the movie does. The allusion of a cat-and-mouse chase is cleverly done with Frank popping up when you least expect him on stage.

Some of the songs are excellent, including the FBI's swinging dance number "Don't Break the Rules" and the father-and-son duet "Butter Outta Cream." David Rockwell's sets are, as usual, fun, evocative and clever, and costumes by William Ivey Long take full advantage of the lithe, leggy dancers' bodies and revel in `60s fashions just in time for folks missing "Mad Men."

It's hard to exactly nail down why, at the end, it doesn't leave an emotional mark. It's not the creative team, who try to deliver a sweet and moving show. It's not the dancing or the sets or the singing. It might be because Abagnale, the real life former con man, has hovered over this production too much, even getting a flattering entry in the Playbill and being feted at mini-previews.

Or it might be that the character based on him happens to be written in a way that leaves no impression. Some attempt is made to offer a socio-psychological reason for Frank Abagnale Jr.'s endless lying, but he seems to just really like bedding stewardesses and nurses. Ultimately, you might just not care if anyone catches him at all.

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Online: http://catchmethemusical.com

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