The new musical version of “Catch Me If You Can,” based on the DreamWorks picture, is an aqua-and-tangerine trip to the early ’60s. And like some of the pop-cultural touchstones of that era — Twiggy, the Corvette, “The Avengers” — it’s most appealing when it keeps things stylish and upbeat. On the flipside, when it pauses for a backstory ballad or a cry-in-your-beer confessional, “Catch Me” feels heavy and slow. At nearly three hours, the musical could stand to lose a few pounds of psychological motivation. But there’s every indication that this show can undergo the diet it needs and lighten up. It’s got great bones.
To begin with, the creative team — playwright Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”) and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”) — have come up with a nifty framing device. The story, you’ll remember, is about Frank Abagnale Jr., the real-life 1960s con artist whose adventures as a sham pilot, doctor and lawyer were fictionalized for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
From the opening number, Abagnale (Aaron Tveit, perfectly cast) presents his past as a TV variety show, “The Frank Abagnale Jr. Show,” complete with swanky onstage orchestra and dancing girls. So a certain artifice is established that makes the songs and dances feel like a fitting part of the action. The conceit also underscores Abagnale’s curious pathology: his compulsion to “act out” his life, rather than just live it.
The production numbers that grow out of Abagnale’s various escapades are pure, kitschy fun. In “The Jet Set,” Abagnale looks sharp in a pilot’s uniform with a line of stewardesses in Bob Mackie miniskirts on his arm. In “Doctor’s Orders,” pin-up-worthy nurses romp with Abagnale on a moving gurney. The songs display all the craft Shaiman and Wittman are known for, and the choreography, by Jerry Mitchell, is just right: clever and fresh, without looking like it’s trying too hard.
Designers David Rockwell (sets), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Bob Bonniol (projections) render Abagnale’s world in aerodynamic shapes and glowing period colors. And ingenious LED backgrounds create an illusion of depth where there is none.
But it would all be smoke and mirrors (or incense and black lights?) without a handful of terrific performances at its center.
There’s the rubber-limbed and growly-voiced Norbert Leo Butz as Hanratty, the downtrodden FBI agent who pursues Abagnale from state to state. And Tom Wopat as Frank Sr., the con man’s dreaming, scheming father.
Kerry Butler arrives in act two as Frank’s wide-eyed love interest. And front and center: Tveit makes a star turn as Frank Abagnale Jr. Charismatic, poised, confident, keen, Tveit is utterly convincing as a man who likes to convince. He sings and dances as easily as most of us kick off our shoes, and from his high-energy introduction, “Live in Living Color!,” the audience roots for him, even though he hasn’t got an ethical bone in his body.
This brings us right back to the point: In a show like this, it doesn’t matter if the leading man is good or bad, or whether his childhood was unhappy, or whether his mother was incapable of love. We’re there for the suave fellow in the dinner jacket; the mod, matching dresses and hats; the cool tinkle of the piano keys at the cocktail bar. Introspective songs like “Fifty Checks” and “The Man Inside the Clues,” which delve into the psyches of Frank Sr. and Hanratty in turn, are just obstacles on the way to happy hour. (That doesn’t even include “Bury Me Beside the One I Love,” a second-act distraction so tangential it begs to be addressed in parentheses.)
A little more witty banter wouldn’t hurt, either. As written, the script draws a handful of hardy laughs from the audience, serving to remind us that we might like just a few more, please.
That’s not to say there’s no place for sentiment in “Catch Me If You Can.” Two ballads lead into the show’s closing number, and neither is what you’d call light fare. First, there’s a stand-by-your-man scorcher, served up flaming by Butler’s Brenda, then Frank’s rueful “Goodbye” when his jig is finally up. Both pack enough emotion to carry the show, without all the soul-searching and foreshadowing. They dig deep, but leave the audience walking on air.