In “Catch Me If You Can,” based on the 2002 Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, teenaged con man Frank Abagnale Jr. recounts his daring escapades in the format of a 1960s TV spectacular; each step in crime is shown as a perky-but-flat variety-show production number. That’s the conceit of the tuner, and the problem as well. Impressive star performances from Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit, a lively production, the best sounding new music currently on Broadway — all built around a succession of glossily frenetic, non-compelling production numbers.
Tuner has fine credentials, with the lead producer, songwriters, director, choreographer, designers, and two featured actresses from the 2002 megahit “Hairspray” returning to the Neil Simon. “Catch” shares the same time period as the former hit as well, but the high quotient of irrepressibly sly fun is missing. Noticeably absent is the typical creative inventiveness of director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jack Mitchell.
The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is more ambitious than their work on “Hairspray,” but they are hamstrung by all those production numbers for sexy stewardesses and sexy nurses. Newcomer to the writing team is veteran librettist Terrence McNally, with reportedly extensive ghostwriting by Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”). The problem, though, doesn’t seem to be the book but the source material. If there is a musical to be made from this tale of a bumbling FBI agent chasing a naively innocent charmer, the creators haven’t found it.
What’s more, the show borrows a running gag from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” wherein the hero hears a bit of hyperbole, innocently repeats it and then flashes a look of realization to the audience accompanied by a musical sting. This serves as a constant reminder of that 50-year-old musical, a revival of which opened just two weeks ago, and the comparison is not favorable.
Aaron Tveit (“Next to Normal”) commands the stage as Frank Jr., in the sort of role which boosted Norbert Leo Butz to stardom in the 2005 “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Still, Butz is very much present in “Catch” as the middle-aged, sad-sack agent in pursuit. While the writers favor Tveit, there is only so much character you can give a chameleon; show doesn’t burst to life until Butz gets his first song (“Don’t Break the Rules”), almost an hour in.
Second act is considerably better, as the authors tone down the variety-show aspects in favor of a self-described noirish section. At about 10 o’clock, things finally take off when the authors get around to introducing Frank’s love interest (Kerry Butler) and her New Orleans parents. Then comes the funniest scene — introduced by “Hairspray” villainess Linda Hart, bleating “Well, goddamn and gumbo!” — and the evening’s finest song, the rollicking “Our Family Tree.” Butler then gets a big ole ballad in the next-to-closing spot, and the talented singer shakes the rafters. But gee, we’ve only barely met this character, one of the self-imposed weaknesses of this true-life cat-and-mouse chase plot.
Strongest contribution is from the music department, with a big-band sound coming from a live-and-onstage band. Conductor John McDaniel presides from a perch in the stage-right corner, bobbing along to swinging orchestrations by Shaiman and Larry Blank. That musical sound and the perfs from Butz and Tveit (with assists from the briefly-seen Butler and Hart) offer considerable entertainment value. Sadly, though, this “Catch” of the day is not especially compelling.