Spielberg film gets a theater tryout

The new tuner adaptation of “Catch Me if You Can” comes from the songwriters, director and choreographer behind 2002 hit “Hairspray.” The book writer is a Rialto vet of both plays and musicals. And the world-preem production at 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle is staged with enhancement funds from two Broadway producers.

But don’t call it Broadway-bound. At least not yet.

Despite the creative team’s pedigree and the cachet of being based on the hit Steven Spielberg-helmed, Leonardo DiCaprio-starring film, the forces behind the “Catch Me” adaptation are quick to rein in expectations and comparisons.

Their caution is prompted by strategic and logistical concerns, with a post-Seattle breather dictated by both the creatives’ prior commitments and the idea that deadline-free time to re-evaluate the show’s strengths and weaknesses can only benefit the final product.

The downside, of course, is that if producers decide to move the show forward, it does not yet have a Broadway theater or opening date lined up — and such things will likely become increasingly hot commodities as the already busy season continues to firm up.

Besides, the “Catch” source material is potentially dicey for a tuner, with a central character who is a con man and philanderer. And the story, based on the memoirs of Frank W. Abagnale Jr., is rooted in fact, not fantasy, the way “Hairspray” was.

“We’re in a different key,” helmer Jack O’Brien says. “‘Hairspray’ was all invention, but ‘Catch Me,’ fantastical as it may seem, really happened. That has brought all of us a different responsibility and a different objectivity.”

The project — which follows a young man who in the 1960s posed as everything from a pilot to a pediatrician to pass off $2.5 million in fraudulent checks — originated about a year after “Hairspray,” when songwriting duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman spotted a movie-related “Catch Me” display in Gotham’s Drama Book Shop.

“The image of the Frank character with all those stewardesses seemed theatrical,” Wittman says. The bubbly early-’60s feel of “Hairspray,” he adds, is replaced in “Catch Me” by a swingy, jet-age, Rat Pack sound — composed for mostly male leads, as opposed to the dominant female voices of “Hairspray.”

“It’s sort of the flipside of ‘Hairspray,’ ” Wittman says.

Shaiman and Wittman team with fellow “Hairspray” alums O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell and set designer David Rockwell for “Catch Me,” with Terrence McNally — who worked with O’Brien and Mitchell on “The Full Monty” — to pen the book. Commercial producers Margo Lion (“Hairspray”) and Hal Luftig (“Legally Blonde”) also are attached.

The movie and now the tuner focus on the dynamic between Abagnale, often called Frank Jr., and the FBI agent (not a real person but a composite character) who catches him, Carl Hanratty. Aaron Tveit (“Next to Normal”) plays the fraudster role portrayed by DiCaprio in the pic, with Norbert Leo Butz (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) stepping into the part of the agent, played in the movie by Tom Hanks.

Unlike the all-encompassing feel-good vibe of “Hairspray,” “Catch Me,” according to creatives, has more sober undertones about a young man whose dysfunctional relationship with his father (Tom Wopat in the musical) leads him to look for a mentor in the FBI agent chasing him.

“It’s a curious triangle for a musical,” says McNally, whose bookwriting credits include the 1998 tuner “Ragtime,” set for a Broadway revival this fall. “The biggest challenge is getting the audience emotionally involved with a guy who is basically a con man.”

Those more serious ideas are balanced with a storytelling device that sees Frank Jr. relate his own bio as a glitzy variety show from the ’60s. “Frank Jr. is from the first generation that grew up completely with television,” Shaiman notes.

The Seattle staging is entirely produced by 5th Avenue Theater, with nary a mention of being “pre-Broadway” — unlike, for instance, “Shrek the Musical,” which preemed at the same theater last fall, or, for that matter, “Hairspray,” which also tried out at the venue.

David Armstrong, producing artistic director of 5th Avenue, says his org on average shells out $1.5 million to $2 million in producing costs per show, with Lion and Luftig helping to make up the difference in the “Catch Me” pricetag of $3.5 million. If successful, “Catch Me” has the potential to funnel residual cash back to 5th Avenue, as “Hairspray” has.

The commercial producers say the decision to forgo the tryout label (including the choice not to have a New York theater yet nailed down), gives the collaborators time to hone a show if it needs it.

“When you have these shows that are on track to come right in, it doesn’t afford the creative team any time to take a break, take a step back and look at every element of it,” Luftig says.

Also up in the air is the work sked for O’Brien and Mitchell as director and helmer of the multinational preem of the “Phantom of the Opera” sequel, “Love Never Dies.” After “Catch Me” in Seattle, the duo head to a London workshop of the Andrew Lloyd Webber tuner — which might materialize onstage next spring, thereby pushing back any “Catch Me” plans.

Meanwhile, the 5th Avenue incarnation began previews July 28, following a delay prompted by a death in Butz’s family. For now, collaborators say they’ll take creative and producing cues from the show’s first auds.

“Seattle audiences give you a lot of information,” Lion says. “I don’t think they’re any easier than Broadway.”

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