Theater Review: Catch Me If You Can Turns a Fascinating True Story Into a Glitzy Spectacle

The keys to a successful con, according to Frank Abagnale, Jr., are to dazzle your subject, misdirect if possible, and always keep talking. The stage musical inspired by Abagnale’s time as a notorious schemer, crook, and millionaire—all before age 21—takes this advice to heart, giving its audience a show with plenty of flash and distraction but precious little substance.

Based on the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, Catch Me If You Can globetrots with Abagnale as he runs away from his parents’ divorce and impersonates first a Pan Am pilot, then a doctor, and finally a lawyer before being caught by a dogged FBI agent. It’s a fascinating, mostly true story, and one that Hollywood already solidly told in 2002.

But that didn’t stop director Jack O’Brien and the musical team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, the TV series Smash) from turning the straightforward tale into a glitzy spectacle, framed within the concept of a 1960s variety show. This convention quickly falls by the wayside, however, and its half-baked inclusion only emphasizes how unnecessary the musical additions ultimately are to Abagnale’s story.

Even if the songs (supported with a serviceable book by Terrence McNally) are as empty as Abagnale’s claims and qualifications, the ample charms of the young national touring cast manage to hoodwink the audience—at least for a little bit. As Abagnale, Stephen Anthony exudes boyish innocence and charismatic confidence. He’s instantly likable, whether he’s desperately trying to make his father (Dominic Fortuna, bringing gravitas to a cartoon sketch) proud or letting his libido discover a world full of gorgeous women. This kid’s got the looks, voice, and presence to carry a show, and he’s only one year out of college.

Choreographers Jerry Mitchell and Nick Kenkel never waste an opportunity to display the nubile ensemble, shimmying and jiving seemingly every five minutes in skimpy costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Amy Burgmaier and Ben Laxton each step out for choice character roles, the former as a spunky Southern mama and the latter as a comic book-loving FBI agent whose youth unknowingly mirrors that of the boy he’s chasing. As the wholesome nurse who Abagnale is willing to stop thieving for, Aubrey Mae Davis lets most of her loopy lines fall flat, but her song “Fly, Fly Away” showcases a soaring voice.

Even within the slick, lounge-like atmosphere created by David Rockwell’s set, Kenneth Posner’s lollipop-bright lighting, and Bob Bonniol’s videos, Merritt David Janes seems gray and flat as Agent Carl Hanratty, the cat to Abagnale’s bold mouse. On Broadway, Norbert Leo Butz earned a Tony Award for his portrayal of Hanratty, and Tom Hanks brought a steely single-mindedness to the role on film. Here, Janes supplies a fine voice and a few chuckles from his dialogue, but you might find yourself struggling to remember who he is at the start of each scene.

The show takes great pains to remind us that this unbelievable tale of a chameleon crook—who later trades jail time for a gig with the FBI’s counterfeiting department—is true. It piles on the glitter, glamour, and girls, as well as shoehorns in songs that gloss over emotion in favor of reiterating what’s already been said. It all, ultimately, makes Abagnale’s story harder to buy into.