If Bob Fosse were alive today, he’d have wanted to direct the new musical Catch Me If You Can, which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. Fosse was the king of concept musicals, perhaps most notably Chicago and Pippin. And Catch Me If You Can owes something to both – like Chicago, it surrounds itself in a period-appropriate wrapping paper; for Chicago, it was vaudeville and a dash of burlesque, for Catch Me it is the always colorful, two-dimensional world of the TV variety show. And like Pippin, our hero isn’t really a hero and his story is told through the filter of self-narration (Pippin/Frank, Jr.) and a guiding force (the Leading Player/Hanratty), which also filters what we, the audience, sees. For those not familiar with the works of Fosse, let me give a more modern reference: not since the brilliant work of John Doyle on Sweeney Todd and Company has the concept musical taken such a giant leap forward. If history is any guide, I’m pretty sure critics will be divided on this show, but don’t wait for a revival 10 years from now at Encores! to decide that this show works brilliantly on every level. See it now, and soak it all in. With The Book of Mormon, we have a celebrated meta-musical comedy; with Catch Me If You Can, we have a superb concept musical. If there is any theatrical justice left in this world, audiences will embrace both shows. Surely, there is room in your theatre loving heart for two great and completely different shows in one season, right?
This musical, based on the DreamWorks film and book by Frank Abagnale, Jr., celebrates all that makes the modern Broadway musical sing and dance as no other art form does. In celebrating that, it also moves us another step forward in the evolution of the genre. And who better to take us there than almost the entire creative team of the blockbuster musical Hairspray, which itself took the traditional form to new comedic and socially important heights? Yes, composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have re-joined forces with director and choreography dream team Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell, who have in turn re-joined with designers David Rockwell (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Kenneth Posner (lighting) to create a completely different world than they took us to before. (Beyond the people themselves, there really is no other valid comparison to Hairspray – to come in expecting that would be like expecting King Lear to be anything like The Odd Couple. Both shows are great on their own.) This world that is as debonair and sleek as a 60’s new Boeing 727, full of innocent double entendres, sexy chorus girls and boys seemingly unaware of, yet basking in, their own steaming hotness, and a juicy story about getting away with everything but murder and coming out on top. All played to a soundtrack (not literally: the magnificent orchestra is in full view nearly all the time) of suave Sinatra-esque songs, and a cheeky modern jazz score that titillates as much as it pleases the ear.
For those of you who wondered where the “dance” went in big Broadway dance numbers, look no further than Catch Me If You Can. Mitchell, as always, has done his homework, channeling the homey sweetness of the production numbers from weekly variety shows of the Perry Como/Lawrence Welk ilk, as well as the sexy, dazzling, send-the-kids-to-bed-before-it-starts variety shows that were star vehicles for one performer – like Mitzi Gaynor, and later, Liza Minnelli. You know just the kind of numbers I mean – a common setting, a risqué arrangement of a familiar tune, and costumed dancers in the tightest possible versions of setting appropriate costumes, with the star bedazzled in sequins from head to toe. Each number is carefully constructed to please everyone – the song lover, the singer lover, and the blush inducing dancer lovers. The show has an abundance of such numbers – the airline-themed “The Jet Set,” and the hospital-themed “Doctor’s Orders” – to name but two. The former has our (anti-) hero, Frank, Jr. dead center in a sequined pilot’s jacket and a cast of sexy pilots and stewardesses joining him in a climactic kick line that begs for audience applause and matches anything the Rockettes have churned out in the recent decade or two. The latter, has our (anti-) hero, Frank. Jr. dead center in a complex props numbers that starts with sexy nurses clad in tight, very short uniforms, arriving legs (and sparkly Red Crosses) first from the floor below, and ends with a frenzy of “hospital dance” moves involving gurneys and other movable accoutrement, handled nimbly by equally attractive doctors, surgeons and orderlies. That both numbers have driving, toe-tapping rhythms and tunes with witty lyrics is a given from this team. But it is what else these numbers (and the others like them) bring to the concept table that elevates this musical.
You see, the difference here between the variety show frame of the show, and the show itself, is that we also get to know the context of the numbers, and I would hope, the all important subtext that we are left to find for ourselves on first viewing. (I firmly believe that this is one of those shows that get deeper into things than you can possibly get just seeing and/or hearing it once – I can not wait for the cast recording!) Yes, Frank, Jr.’s stint as a Pan Am airline pilot as well as an emergency room attendant are well-known chapters in this remarkable story of a teenage con man with the FBI hot on his trail, for his third famous stint – as a bad check writing genius. And to make big production numbers of them makes great sense in terms of story importance and entertainment value. But the subtext brought to us through the eyes of our (anti-)hero, Frank, Jr., in act one and our FBI agent (hero) Hanratty in act two, is what really informs the entire musical. And that is brought to us by one of Broadway’s greatest living librettists and playwrights, Terrence McNally.
And what Mr. McNally brings to this feast is both the cold distance afforded by the combination of first person narration and razzle-dazzle production numbers, equally framed by what only the TV camera would let us see at home, and the more complex inner workings of the characters. The show starts off at the climax of the story. Frank, Jr. (Aaron Tveit) has been caught at a gate of an airport by the man who spent years chasing him, Agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz) and his fellow agents. Always up for another con, Frank, Jr. gives us a giant wink and launches into a “don’t all of these nice folks deserve to know why you are shooting at me” speech, and against Hanratty’s will, we are transported back to the beginning, where Frank, Jr., a high school kid, gets his start as one of the world’s greatest con men. And he’s going to tell us, “Live in Living Color,” through his favorite kind of story – the variety show – which will feature “guest stars” from his life, including his parents, a Playboy bunny (the insanely sexy Rachelle Rak), the one love of his life, and her parents. And of course, like it or not, his nemesis, Hanratty, who he will lead on the greatest chase Broadway has seen since Javert went after Valjean. Oh, and did I mention the rugged, manly chorus boys and the leggy, voluptuous chorus girls? This is a teenager’s fantasy, after all.
Naturally, McNally, Wittman and Shaiman aren’t leaving us with a sugar-coated, Broadway-bloated “This Is Your Life” special. No, they have also slyly slipped in the darker, more real story, which is at the heart of the show: Catch Me If You Can is really the story of three men: a young man obsessed with earning the love of his father and of getting his parents back together through the only means he has ever been taught, the father who is a small time con man determined to not let the system beat him, and the man who is the system and lives to uphold the justice of it. And all around the big numbers are the self-reflections, the harsh realities and the life-changing moments that make father realize he wasn’t what the son needed, the son realize that the high life and money can’t buy family or love, and the agent realize that the security of the black and white code he lives by never prepares you for the people who challenge it and everything you stand for. And by balancing the fantasy of the world Frank Jr. longs for in act one, with the more grounded and surprisingly emotional world of the Hanratty narrated second act, we see the same great chase from both amazing perspectives. Powerful stuff, powerfully played and staged.
O’Brien and Mitchell have done with minimalist sets and trap door elevators what Les Miserables did for the turntable. Here, these masters have perfected the art of translating cinematic tricks like close-ups, cross fades and panoramic views to the milieu of the stage. I have never seen a more efficient use of that particular Broadway magic. And with colorfully lit, primarily white sets, and carefully chosen full color set pieces, Rockwell and Posner have created a simple, easy to identify series of sets that create the illusion of a far flung journey while keeping it within the confines of a stage proscenium. The result is a visual representation of the high gloss fantasy world we all want to live in, coupled with the harsher but equally interesting nuances of real life.
To completely ignore the contributions of the 19 member ensemble, here coyly named “The Frank Abagnale, Jr. Players,” would be like not reviewing the actress playing Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! If you’ve ever seen a Jerry Mitchell production number, you know how rigorous they are, full of precision, complex foot and arm movements and space-defying transitions. Add to that his attention to the details of the genre – the kick line, the formations, the style, the props – and you can clearly understand why these dancers are the very pinnacle of Broadway gypsies. Bravo to each and every one of them for not only framing our star, but for being the picture, the frame and all of the sexy paint in the art of each number. (What a superb year for dancing on Broadway!) The gals are toothsome, leggy and just naughty enough, and the boys are toothsome, masculine and just as naughty.
The more personally relevant supporting characters in Frank Jr.s life are his mother, Paula, a French woman much too young to have married, but who did so to get out of war-torn France, played with honesty, dignity and sophisticated veneer by Rachel de Benedet. Her character loves to dance, and as such, she weaves in and out of the story on the arms of the man she married and the man she leaves the family for, the business partner of her husband. It is this affair that ultimately propels the quest for fatherly acceptance into a battle to keep a family together.
Not only does this show make you engage your brain, it makes you look deeper for the heart that drives men who are desperate, and it does so with a smooth sophistication bested only by its innate sense of new fashioned Broadway razzle-dazzle. This show goes down like a cocktail mixed only with top shelf liquor – cool and easy to take, with the emotional wallop of a finale that takes you by surprise. The writers have asked you to like a bad guy, side with a government agent, and have done it all with a deceptively smooth, naturally distancing concept that makes you work for the emotional pay off. But if you are willing to bring your thinking self to the party, get to know the guests and then let go, you’ll have a hell of a time. You won’t leave drunk, but you will leave on the edge of tipsy, with all your show loving nerves a-tingle.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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