Man in Chair presents

Man in Chair presents Catch Me If You Can

Same composers, same era, same director and choreographer, same designers, same Broadway theatre, even some of the same stars – why did Catch Me If You Can flop where Hairspray shone?

Less than six months after the Broadway opening of hit musical Hairspray, Steven Spielberg’s movie Catch Me If You Can was released and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman had their next project. The movie, starring Leonardo di Caprio as young conman Frank Abagnale Jr and Tom Hanks as driven FBI agent Carl Hanratty, took $350 million worldwide and was nominated for two Academy Awards.

The real life hijinks of Abagnale Jr, who passed $2.5 million worth of fake cheques and impersonated a pilot, doctor and attorney, was terrific movie fodder. The 1960s setting was catnip to composers Shaiman and Wittman, who again wrote pastiches of music from the era, although there was more of a lounge music feel than the peppy pop of Hairspray.

You wouldn’t know it to look at them side by side, but the leading men chosen for the show had a role in common in their biogs: Wicked’s Fiyero. Quirky character actor Norbert Leo Butz created the role of Fiyero for the 2003 Broadway premiere, and smooth, tall and handsome Aaron Tveit played the role in 2008 and 2009.

Butz (above) won the 2011 Best Leading Actor Tony Award for his work as Agent Hanratty, beating, it should be noted, our beloved Tony Sheldon as Bernadette in Priscilla. Butz wowed audiences with “Don’t Break The Rules,” an amazing production number that featured wildly energetic choreography:

Likeable golden boy Tveit (below) had an inbuilt fan base from his appearances as Tripp van der Bilt on Gossip Girl and music theatre cred from creating the role of Gabe in 2009’s Next To Normal.

Frank’s parents were shown as highly influential in his life, particularly his unsuccessful but well-intentioned father Frank Abagnale Sr. Fans of the 1980s television hit The Dukes of Hazzard may be surprised to learn the Tom Wopat, who played Frank Sr, is largely known as a Broadway musical star these days.

While the key relationship of the story is the game of cat and mouse between the two male leads, it would not be a Broadway musical without a little romance. Frank Jr has a fling with Cheryl Ann, played by Rachelle Rak, highly memorable Sheila auditionee in the A Chorus Line documentary Every Little Step.

Act two brings a more developed love interest: the lovely Brenda Strong played by never-out-of-work Broadway trooper Kerry Butler (right). Should Catch Me If You Can ever make the highly unlikely step of opening in Australia, we would have our pick of Kerry Butler ‘types’. Esther Hannaford won Green Room and Helpmann Awards as Penny Pingleton, a role Butler originated in Hairspray, Christie Whelan sparkled in the lamentably short-lived Xanadu as Kira, another role Butler created, and Amy Lehpamer rocked Rock of Ages as Sherrie, a role Butler played to replace the MIA Amy Spanger.

Brenda has a sensational 11 o’clock number “Fly, Fly Away.” Don’t you just love a key change on a long belted note? Enjoy it below:

Wardrobe for Catch Me If You Can was by one of Broadway’s wittiest and splashiest costume designers, William Ivey Long. Hairpsray, The Producers and Crazy for You are just a few of the shows for which he has conjured stunningly spectacular designs. Long’s designs were up there with his best here, featuring wonderful textures and fabrics in the usual giddy spectrum of luscious colours. Hairspray’s designer Norman Rockwell repeated his duties here to less successful effect.

Staging this musical comedy should have been a welcome return to form for director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell after their regrettable involvement in the London opening of Love Never Dies, cheekily dubbed Paint Never Dries by online critics. While several individual numbers landed successfully, the show as a whole was ill conceived, a whole lot lesser than the sum of its parts.

Usually reliable scriptwriter Terrence McNally (Ragtime, Masterclass Kiss of the Spiderwoman) deserves some of the blame for the show’s failure as well. The musical tells the story in flashback mode: beginning with Frank Jr’s arrest, he goes back to tell his story, for no discernible reason, in the format of a 1960s television variety program. This means that unlike the modern style of integrated numbers that propel plotlines, Wicked’s “Dancing Through Life” being a classic example, the songs in Catch Me If You Can exist in a kind of vacuum, each cut off from the other in style and substance.

This format greatly undersold the ensemble as well, as they ended up like Channel Nine dancers, just taking part in the songs as bodies but not playing any role in the story. This is in sharp contrast with the terrific ensemble work available in shows like The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Legally Blonde.

It all looked so promising on paper. In a 2011 Broadway visit Man in Chair enjoyed the performers and the costumes. Enjoyed them twice actually. A long run was not to be but thankfully we have the score preserved on cast recording. Meanwhile, it looks like the show may have some life outside New York – the highly anticipated Korean production opened last week!

Read the New York Times review of Catch Me If You Can.

Man In Chair previously presented:

Pal Joey


The Pirate Queen

All Shook Up


Death Takes A Holiday


Photos: Joan Marcus

This article was published on Theatre People on 2 April 2012

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