at the theater: catch me if you can & book of mormon

In a lesser year, the new musical Catch Me If You Can might have passed for frothy good fun.  Based on the DreamWorks film of the same name about suave, young con artist Frank Abnagale, Jr., it has ambition and talent – and god knows it’s got a pedigree that would make any show dog bark.  Yet, surprisingly it’s got no bite. This has been an adventurous theater-going season: from the artistic derring-do of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Kander & Ebb’s razor sharp beyond-the-grave effort, The Scottsboro Boys, to the gut-bustingly funny Book of Mormon. Seen in that light, the final musical entry of the season comes across as a three-legged mutt peering in the windows at Westminster.  It doesn’t help matters that everything about this production – save the casting – seems woefully misconceived.  Could this really be the same creative team that put together the indelibly infectious Hairspray? Almost. That show was blessed with the mordant humor of Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell.  Catch Me suffers from a book by Terrence McNally, who, despite a number of fine plays to his credit, has a mixed record when it comes to musicals. Add this one to his list of half-baked collaborations.  And while we’re at it, the entire Hairspray team turns in a less than stellar effort: David Rockwell’s bland staircase isn’t much of a set; Jerry Mitchell’s choreographed pelvic-thrusting passes tacky and settles into boring far too quickly; costume designer William Ivey Long somehow misses out on the 60’s fun; and in a rare misstep, director Jack O’Brien seems rather, um, absent. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman fare better, but without a book as their hook the tuneful score works better as an album of pop songs. Just one glaring example: the under-used Kerry Butler finally gets time to wail out a show stopper near the end of the second act – the marvelous Fly, Fly, Away, in which she promises to be Frank’s alibi – then we never see her again. Huh? It’s moments like these that give one pause to think that Catch Me might be the victim of one too many out-of-town workshops. Cut and Paste Me, anyone? If there’s a saving grace to the production it’s in the cast. Norbert Leo Butz as the FBI agent who pursues Frank is the closest we’ve got to a bona fide musical comedy star. Lest you think otherwise, this man is an actor through and through, too. Watching him command the stage, turning a second-rate number into a showstopper, is one of those golden theatrical moments that those lucky enough to witness will talk about for years. Never much of a fan when it comes to Tom Wopat, his turn as Frank’s shambolic father is touchingly real and rich in pathos. The women are all good, too – aside from the aforementioned Kerry Butler, both Linda Hart and Rachael de Benedet are first-rate – but let’s be honest, they’re parenthetical in this story of fathers and sons. Finally, Aaron Tveit as the prodigal son, Frank, might be a little light on personality but as Catch Me’s narrator and nominal hero he performs a Herculean task admirably. Moreover, you believe him when he finds salvation. What you don’t believe, however, is the road that got him there. Talking of belief and believers, I paid a second visit to Book of Mormon the same week as Catch Me. If anything, it’s even funnier the second time around. Think of it this way: on first viewing, you laugh at the sheer audacity of it all; on second viewing, you’re able to catch (almost) every subtle detail and clever turn of phrase.  It’s genius – what else can I say?


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