If theater were a war and awards were weapons, Catch Me if You Can would be a military superpower. The composers, director, and author share 10 Tony Awards between them (plus two Emmys, a Grammy, a Pulitzer nomination, and more Drama Desk Awards than anybody needs). 5th Avenue Theatre, with help from commercial producers Margo Lion and Hal Luftig, have brought back composing duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—they were last in town for Hairspray, which premiered in Seattle and went on to Broadway glory. The cast includes award winners of all stripes, Broadway regulars, and Tom Wopat, who played Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard.
But for all its pyrotechnic potential, Catch Me if You Can is mostly a squib.
The musical's setting and source material—the Steven Spielberg movie of 2002, which was based on a true story—are superb. In the late 1960s, a charming young swindler named Frank Abagnale Jr. ran a series of spectacular cons, successfully posing as a doctor, a lawyer, a university professor, and a Pan Am pilot while writing $2.8 million in bad checks (almost a million less than Catch cost to produce). At age 21, he was caught by a dogged FBI agent, served five years in American and European prisons, and later made millions as a fraud-and-security consultant.
The musical concentrates on the sexier half of Abagnale's life with a finger-snapping, mod-revival aesthetic of bright yellows, greens, and Pan Am blues. The score is strongest when it sticks to exotic '60s jazz—a touch of Perez Prado, a dash of Henry Mancini. But as the musical tries to summon enough emotional ballast for a heartfelt conclusion, it strays into overwrought Broadway cheese. (The song "Fly, Fly Away" is just one hair shy of "I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me.")
The narrative walks a difficult tightrope: Its star, a swindler and philanderer, must be likable. Its costar, a grumpy FBI agent, must also be likable. Catch Me if You Can is a story full of cheaters, predators, killjoys, and alcoholics—but no villains allowed.
Aaron Tveit, as Abagnale, slides around the stage like he's been sculpted out of hair product. He sings and talks with a thousand-watt smile, but Tveit seems less than human—not raffish enough to be seductive, not vulnerable enough to be sympathetic. (The musical pins Abagnale's fondness for deceit and assumed identities on his parents' divorce.)
If Catch succeeds on Broadway, it will owe everything to costar Norbert Leo Butz as the schlubby FBI agent Carl Hanratty. Despite his baggy gray suit and the world's most boring mustache, Butz dominates the stage with comic timing and shambling grace. The composers have given him the best numbers: snappy, self-deprecating hits that allow us to see the heroism in his mundane job. While Abagnale tries to sneak his way into our hearts, Hanratty is gloriously, unabashedly himself: "No penthouse view or nice cologne/No Playboy bunnies on my phone/With centerfolds, I'm home alone/Just me myself and I... And here I am to save the day/A burning itch that will not go away/To most I'm special agent 'who?'/But Jesus Christ, I'm good at what I do!"
Hanratty wins, of course. Not only the game of cat and mouse, not only Abagnale's grudging respect, but the biggest prize of all: the Congressional Medal of Distinguished Service for Transcending Glitz and Breathing Life into an Otherwise Moribund Musical.
The weekend's other premiere, Emerald and the Love Song of the Dead Fishermen, is more technically modest but imaginatively ambitious. A fairy tale by local playwright Brendan Healy, Emerald follows the fortunes of its titular heroine, a young barista with bright green hair and the bad luck to be born on the Day of Dead Fishermen. Her father drowned that day, her mother became a shut-in, and all the fishermen onstage (they're the ones with the pirate accents and bright yellow slickers) refuse to speak to her. But it's her 25th birthday and she wants to find the magical island where her father's body will rise from the sea, so she teams up with a droopy coffeehouse manager and an unpopular sea captain, et cetera, et cetera. Whimsy, puppets, and accordions ensue.
Healy's plays build stylized worlds that initially resemble ours and then fragment, with odd poetry pouring from their fissures. In his most recent play, The Secret Recordings of Lenin to His Lost Love..., a planned community becomes a seat for Soviet lust and riotous subversion. Emerald depicts a dreamy Seattle caught between salty fishermen and corporate coffee goons. Healy strings together fanciful, mostly self-contained scenes: Emerald dropping her excess dreams in customers' drinks, lectures on the superstitions of fishermen and baristas, Emerald giving her mother a new corporate tea flavor ("herbal pomegranate infused with dilapidated barns"), anatomy lessons about fish and fishermen (with air bladders and dream sacs), a forlorn man trying to pick up women by describing how sea stars vomit their guts at would-be predators.
Emerald is imaginative, but it doesn't carry the emotional weight of Healy's previous plays. The ensemble doesn't do the script any favors and sticks to splashing around in the shallow—and sometimes hammy—end of the pool. Emerald is a noble effort, but it stops at cute.