Catch Me If You Can, the latest Broadway series musical for the Walton Arts Center, has all the exuberant cast and flashy design of any one of its counterparts this season, but was a little light in the surprise department, something of an essential for a play whose plot is centered on a crime-spree.
The show is based on the true-life story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., and, of course, there’s Steven Spielberg’s 2002 iteration. So, the story is more or less a given and is likely already known to many audience members. Yet, the musical version does little justice by the promise of the original plot. Set in the 1960s, the design of the show is glam and snazzy. Still, the complications that unfold are not very complicated and the basic connections between characters (Frank Abagnale, Sr. to Jr.; the hunted man to the fed in pursuit) are exactly what you would expect.
The story is that of a teen that runs from a broken home only to end up on the FBI’s most wanted list for a string of forgery and illegal impersonations. There’s much charm to be found in the tale and its basis in truth is certainly alluring. The real life Abagnale did successfully pilot planes, practice medicine and law, and evade federal agents for years. But, as ripe with romance as such a premise might seem, little of it was manifest on stage. Too much was made of the mother and father’s troubled relationship in the first act (a detail that almost seems pro forma for musicals these days and one that is often covered in a few quick brush strokes: in the musical Wicked, for instance), and the main love story developed in the second act seemed too rushed to be especially convincing, overshadowed by the details of the first.
The show does open with a bang, with our rag-tag group of federal agents catching up to the young man in an airport terminal. The rest of the musical is a flashback of our hero’s journey leading up to that moment, after Abagnale convinces the agents to allow him to explain to the attendant travelers of the airport why he is being arrested (which seemed a little thin as a jumping off point). I did appreciate the richness of the costume and set design, though. The choreography was sexy, as well, with a strong ensemble troupe put to good effect throughout. I also enjoyed the bandstand-style musicians who occupied the background, much of which is owed to David Rockwell’s slick set design and use of their space. The inspiration for most of the music seems to stem from 1960s television and pop, which is good for the premise of a young teenager lured by the glamour of that culture and willing to do anything to fulfill it, but never manages to really captivate.
Several numbers do stand out, like “Don’t Break the Rules” which highlights the character Tom Hanks interprets in the film, Hanratty, the lead fed in pursuit, played by Merritt David Janes. His performance was perhaps the most nuanced and contributed much needed believable depth. Aubrey Mae Davis who plays Frank’s love interest also has a standout number in “Fly, Fly Away.” But, like I said, we are not even introduced to her character until the second act and the song comes almost at the end. The lead, Stephen Anthony, was appropriately sprite-like and cocky, but his Frank Abagnale, Jr. was also a little too streamlined, owed perhaps to some pantomime-inducing dialogue. All the same, I was quite charmed by a good deal of his performance, which was energetic and helped to physically punctuate some of the slower transitions. He also has a great voice, so even though some of the songs might lack luster, their delivery never did.
The book, which does have some very funny moments, is the work of Terrence McNally, who carries a string of accolades (including Drama Desk Awards, Tonys and even a Pulitzer nomination). I’m a fan of his work, but am not sure this will be one for which he is remembered. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who did the music and lyrics are equally prized and talented. Director Jack O’Brien is no stranger to Broadway, either, having helmed Hairspray and Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels, among others, not to mention Il Trittico for the Metropolitan Opera.
The vibrancy of the cast translates well, with strong performances throughout, but again some of the more colorful characters come a little too late, like Brenda’s parents, who also seem a sort of awkward counterweight to the drawn out early exploration of Abagnale’s home life. Though this may be many a theatergoer’s cup of tea, overall, I found it so-so. If you are enamored with the period and a fan of the original story, it is likely you will be entertained, but I’d wager it will not be the play that subscribers remember from this season.
Catch Me If You Can runs through Sunday, Jan. 13. Show times vary. Tickets can be purchased at waltonartscenter.org or by calling the box office at 479-443-5600.