The set-up: The pedigree for the musical Catch Me If You Can, based on the somewhat fictionalized biography of Frank Abagnale, Jr., security and fraud guru extraordinaire, which in turn was the basis for the Steven Spielberg movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, is unrivaled.
The production team for this touring show presented by Gexa on Broadway is filled with golden boy alumni who hit it big with Hairspray and other award-winning Broadway jackpots-- music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; direction by Jack O'Brien (Coast of Utopia); choreography by Jerry Mitchell (La Cage aux Folles); book by Terrance McNally (Love! Valor! Compassion!; Master Class); costume design by William Ivey Long (Grey Gardens; The Producers); lighting by Kenneth Posner (Wicked); sets by David Rockwell (Legally Blonde; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels); orchestrations by Larry Blank (The Drowsy Chaperone). It's a Who's Who of the best that showbiz can offer. So why is this show so mediocre?
The execution: There's flash galore, leggy Vegas chorines, video projections that dazzle and never stop, and the hardest working cast in the business, but all the frenzy and non-stop direction seem to mask the big question mark at the show's center. Young Frank Abagnale (Stephen Anthony, who lights up the stage by his very presence, and can sing and strut as if to the manor born) is a chameleon, and no matter what personal baggage the makers thrust upon this teen con man, there's no there there. The writers can lay on the hoary device of pleasing a lost daddy or finding his true self when he falls in love, but Frank remains, as he begins, a cipher. Behind the tinselly production, there's just more smoke and mirrors.
Abagnale begins his short life of crime by impersonating a French teacher at his high school, graduates to kiting checks, then moves into impersonations of substitute teacher, airline pilot, emergency room supervisor, and lawyer. All before he's twenty-one. It's quite a Robin Hood existence, except that he takes from the poor and gives to himself. He's not the most sterling of characters, no matter how woeful a back story.
Once interstate commerce becomes involved, the FBI gets hot on his trail, and agent Carl Hanratty (Merritt David Janes), rumpled and schlubby, vows to get his man. When Hanratty discovers the man he's chasing is merely a kid, he, like the show, goes soft and squishy. You see, Hanratty has a sad back story, too, laid out with glitz and pin-spot precision, but not much dramatic intensity. It's paint by numbers.
The showmakers give young Frank a framing device: he's going to tell his story like a TV variety show. That's all well and good up to a point, but how many ersatz Dean Martin or Andy Williams knock-off production numbers can we take? Why are we watching reruns? Granted, the story takes place in the '60s, but even so, we expect the numbers to build, say something about the characters, give us some bit of insight perhaps. No, here they're just knock-off, and knock-out, production numbers, sparkle and razzle-dazzle, as only Broadway pros can do, while poor Frank stays hidden in plain sight.
The songs are a pastiche of '60s TV, which limit their effectiveness, and none of them are particularly memorable -- unlike the writers' work on Hairspray, where the songs and dances pop and fizz and make us believe we could dance like the fat girl. Hanratty gets the best songs, the show-stopping "Don't Break the Rules," where his sad-sack character gets down with a finger-snappin' jive routine, or the bluesy "The Man Inside the Clues," where he peeps out of his shell and connects with the young man he's trailing.
Love interest Brenda (Aubrey Mae Davis) gets a second-act power ballad, "Fly, Fly Away," but since she, too, is undeveloped as a character, the number, however beautifully delivered, seems only to be an opportunity to give the actress more stage time.
The scene where Frank meets Brenda's Louisiana family is broadly played like a wayward Carol Burnett sketch but without that show's exquisite dark comic timing, which doesn't serve anybody and stops the show dead.
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Dominic Fortuna, as Frank's dad, has a deliciously smoky baritone and the jazzy insouciance of a life-long member in Sinatra's Rat Pack, but his songs make little impression since the authors have turned him into a boozy forlorn wreck who pines for an adulterous wife (Caitlin Maloney).
By the second act, everything starts to feel extraneous: the songs, the dialogue scenes, even the production itself, which has been, up to this time, a marvel of stagecraft and wizardry. (There is nothing better than Broadway pros putting on a show...until they run out of ideas.)
The verdict: The authors miss the plane on this one, dropping the variety show half way through, and revert to old-fashioned Broadway musical storytelling, which only points out how nebulous the concept was to begin with. The sets glide on and off stage magnificently, the backdrops sizzle and practically send off sparks, the orchestra (in white dinner jackets and in full view upstage on a nifty Jetsons' style S-curve of a bandstand) swings in melodious orchestrations that would make Nelson Riddle swoon, and the chorus girls have legs up to 42nd Street, but no matter how hard they try they can't turn this rickety prop plane into a soaring SST.
Shaiman and Wittman's low-flying musical runs through February 10 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at houston.broadway.com or call 800-952-6560. $45-$100.