“Television corrupts,” wrote Lord Acton, centuries ago. “Absolute television corrupts absolutely.” Before the fact-checkers start yelping, let me confess that I’ve altered one key word to bring this familiar quotation up to date. TV and its Internet offshoots have largely replaced most modes of communication, interaction, and entertainment previously evolved by the human species. Inevitably, what remains of those earlier modes has increasingly come to resemble TV. Politicians, who used to speak in fully formed sentences, now talk in news bites; social conversation now largely sounds like soap opera or sitcom dialogue. And the Broadway musical—you knew where this was heading—regularly strives to emulate the TV variety show, or its younger offshoot, the music video.
Catch Me If You Can (Neil Simon Theatre), the new musical based on the 2002 film, tries to use its indebtedness to the idiot box’s variety format consciously, as a structural premise. When, at the top of the show, we see its youthful con-man hero, Frank Abagnale Jr. (Aaron Tveit), finally getting arrested at an airport by Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz), the FBI agent who has pursued him for two years along a trail of rubber checks, we know that we have an evening-long flashback in store. The musical’s authors must have thought it would be a great innovation to have Frank Jr. plead for a chance to tell his story in showbiz terms: the aesthetic equivalent of one last splashy con before he is cuffed and led away.
Because the era of Frank Jr.’s criminal career was the heyday of video variety (roughly from middle-period Perry Como through Hullabaloo), that’s the format the show’s creators have him choose. The band strikes up, the stage is suddenly inundated with “The Frank Abagnale Jr. Players,” and we’re off. Terrence McNally’s script makes a few cautious stabs at the notion of having Hanratty interrupt the proceedings, but this is a musical, so before long he’s also warbling. A good thing, too, since Butz is first-class at either gumshoeing or soft-shoeing. His rendering of the relentless pursuer—physically contorted, comically dour, psychologically multilayered—is Catch Me If You Can‘s strongest asset.
Partly, Butz’s strength is derived from his role being the one constant rebuke to the show’s TV-ness. Variety shows, by definition, don’t tell a story. (The same problem has been faced by musicals that tried to graft a narrative onto now-antique theatrical variety formats like vaudeville, music hall, and the minstrel show—it never takes.) To keep the narrative moving forward, the creators constantly have to fall back on Hanratty and his loyal but less than effectual bloodhounds, who, even when singing, come off more like figures from film noir than like the smiley guests on some crooner’s musical hour. But each time the evening’s focus shifts back to Frank Jr.’s scam-o-rama, the leggy female choristers come scampering out again, in yet another set of costumes keyed to the scam at hand (stewardess uniforms, nurse uniforms, showgirl outfits with feather fans), to perform, backed up by their peppy male compadres, yet another version of what looks and sounds like the same enjoy-the-show number.
The reduction of nearly every element in the show, except Hanratty’s sourly implacable pursuit of justice, to TV hotcha must initially have seemed a handy two-level bridge, bringing this half-comic true-crime tale into the land of musical entertainment, and simultaneously shepherding the audience back into the era when it occurred. Instead, ironically, it acts as a straitjacket: The network-style inanities keep the narrative and its people from developing any depth, and the essentially two-note story—one scams, the other catches on—lacks precisely the quality that gave those TV entertainments their name: variety. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittmann, masters of pop genre pastiche, are no help in the depth department; the frenetic efforts of director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell do little to diversify the diversion.
Like most of this spring’s Broadway musicals so far, the show sounds loudly unmusical, even when normally delightful singers like Kerry Butler, as the con man’s true love, are involved. Linda Hart, as her raucous mother, snatches some genuine fun from the clangor. But only Butz, apparently as incorruptible as his character, wholly escapes televidiousness.