Inside the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can” is the germ of a great idea for a Broadway show, since antihero Frank Abagnale Jr. ultimately turns out to be less of a con man than consummate thespian.
He’s constantly trying on new roles for size — teacher, doctor, lawyer, pilot — in a way most real stage veterans could only dream of, upping the ante for exploring questions of just how much self-identity we all do or don’t invest in the parts we play. What better hook for doing a sort of backstage musical about acting, without all the boring backstage parts?
The adaptation of “Catch Me If You Can” that opened at the Pantages on Tuesday night finally gets to that, more or less, in the closing number. But the 2 1/2 hours preceding seem motivated by very different questions: How awesome would it be if the Rockettes dressed up in stewardess outfits? And, less fetishistically, perhaps, how cool would it be if Don Draper sang and danced?
These may be worthwhile questions in themselves, although a little razzle-dazzle and ersatz Sammy Cahn go a long way.
In any case, leg men (or leg women) should get themselves down to the Pantages posthaste, where, as the ad campaign suggests, we see the loveliest stems this side of Radio City peeking out from under Pan Am uniforms, porn-ready nurses’ costumes and Southern belles’ mini-dresses. We could reasonably say there is real sexism— not just a spoof of period sexism — in the way stewardesses are portrayed as pilot-hungry nymphs, and nurses as doctor devourers. Yet you hesitate to look a gift chorus line in the mouth, when these are the production numbers that jolt the enterprise to the life to which it constantly and frenetically aspires.
Choreographer Jerry Mitchell is one of several “Hairspray” alumni who joined up for “Catch Me,” and he’s the only one who seems to have invested his full powers in this follow-up, which opened and closed on Broadway in 2011. With one notable exception, the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman won’t make anyone forget “Bombshell” (their “Smash” show-within-a-show), much less “Good Morning Baltimore.”
The show is structured so awkwardly — within a wincingly gag-filled book credited, incredibly, to Terrence McNally — that the songwriters can’t catch too much blame: There’s not a tune in the show that advances the story rather than just reiterating what we’ve heard in dialogue moments before.
In the movie, we could at least wonder what was going on in Leonardo DiCaprio’s head; on stage, leading con Stephen Anthony tells us over and over, first in speech, then in song.
Take out the tunes and nothing would really be missing, except for that hour of Daylight Savings Time we’d be getting back.
But Anthony makes us glad all those songs are there after all, narratively superfluous or not. The Spielberg movie provided a great part for DiCaprio because it brilliantly capitalized on how he sometimes seems a little young for his parts and made that the whole hook.
Anthony is arguably even more of a man-boy here and his soaring tenor is perfect for capturing the combination of confidence and tenuousness that is anybody’s young adulthood, let alone somebody subsumed in an ever-growing set of fake IDs.
His closing number, “Goodbye,” finally makes clear the theatrical metaphor you’ve been waiting for all along (as opposed to the TV-show framing device the show introduces, then quickly drops). It also finally abandons the score’s exhausting Rat Pack pastiche for an unabashed 11 o'clock Broadway number, and Anthony sells it with such conflicting aspiration and desperation, it nearly becomes this show’s “Defying Gravity.”
The rest of the cast keep up with him, too, notably Merritt David Janes as the FBI agent who doggedly pursues Abagnale Jr. right up to the point that it turns from cat-and-mouse game to buddy comedy. (Did we mention that, besides a league of hoofing G-men, one production number also brings out a host of improbably leggy G-women … just because it can?)
Dominic Fortuna, as the con man’s almost equally conny dad, has a nice — if over-obvious — duet with Jones about how the sins of the fathers are visited on boys. And Aubrey Mae Davis, as the love interest whose winsomeness inevitably crimps Frank’s criminal style, makes her shady beau sound like a sweet keeper, in a triumph of warbling over psychologically thin writing.
These tireless touring actors nearly con us into thinking we’re seeing a show worthy of what they’re doing, and that’s not a bad way to be grifted.
[For the record: An earlier version of this review misspelled actor Merritt David Janes.]
"Catch Me If You Can," Pantages Theatre, Hollywood; Tuesdays-Sundays. Ends March 24. $25-125, (800) 982-2787 or www.broadwayla.org. Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Also: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, June 25-30, 714-556-2787, www.scft.org