Saturday, August 15, 2009

Reel Thoughts: Fly Me to the Moon!

Seattle is the best place to go to see fantastic shows before they blast off for Broadway, and Catch Me If You Can is the 5th Avenue Theatre’s latest hit. Based on the 2002 Steven Spielberg film that chronicled the amazing-but-true larcenous life of teenager Frank Abagnale Jr., who convinced people he was a Pan-Am pilot, a pediatrics doctor and a Louisiana lawyer, Catch Me If You Can is a retro-smooth musical cocktail that defines “cool.”

Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s incredibly witty and lush score mixes perfectly with iconic playwright Terrence McNally’s book to hit all the film’s high points, especially in the first act. Director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell bring their best talents to the production, giving it a glossy, fun-filled 60’s TV variety show feel that is the perfect way to make the film sing and dance. The production design is absolutely breathtaking, like stepping into a Mad Men episode as scored by the Rat Pack.

Aaron Tveit, recently voted Broadway’s hottest man, is amazing as Frank Jr., all but erasing Leonardo DiCaprio’s long shadow in the role. He sings like the best of the crooners and he has charisma enough to power David Rockwell’s fantastic light show. From the moment he takes over the stage with his backup dancers to sing “Live in Living Color!”, you will not be able to take your eyes off him ... unless he’s making one of his many escapes from the FBI.

Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, playing Tom Hanks’ dogged Agent Carl Hanratty, creates a whole new musical hero, the super schlub, a man with no life who nonetheless commands the stage whenever he appears. Carl is determined to bring down the elusive Frank, until he discovers that he’s only a kid. “Here I Am (To Save the Day)” is the perfect anthem for Carl’s dull-but-thrilling way of life, and the mile-a-minute patter never trips up the wily Butz.

Tom Wopat, resisting the urge to Christopher Walkenize his Frank Abagnale Sr., takes the role of a man with big dreams and little success and makes him heartbreaking. He sends Frank Jr. off to a life of crime with the tender “Fifty Checks”, a father-son bonding moment marred by the fact that he’s telling his son to spend until the checks run out, a lesson too many people have followed these days. Frank Sr. and his wife Paula (the gorgeous and glamorous Rachel De Benedet) do the unthinkable and divorce, sending their son’s perfect life crashing down and driving him to run away in search of “Someone Else’s Skin” he can inhabit.

Frank’s first miracle job snatch is also the show’s most fun. He becomes a Pan-Am pilot smothered in swingin’ stewardesses, leading to the fabulous production number “The Jet Set”. Every time Hanratty gets close, Frank escapes, racking up 2.8 million dollars in rubber checks along the way.

As act two opens, Frank has graduated to playing doctor, literally, among (as he puts it) a bunch of horny nurses. There he meets Brenda, a sweet candy striper played by Broadway belle Kerry Butler (taking over for the film's Amy Adams). The show drags at this point, if only because nothing involving Brenda’s N’Awlin’s family (Nick Wyman and Linda Hart) is half as entertaining as Frank’s high-flying Pan-Am adventures were. However, the drama of Carl discovering Frank’s broken childhood and becoming a pseudo father figure, as well as Frank Sr.’s sad downward spiral, have an emotional heft that is truly moving.

If tweaks can be made pre-Broadway, I would rewrite the entire Strong family outing part, including the odd number “Bury Me Beside the One I Love”, and give Butler, Wyman and Hart something more fun to do (and for the audience to watch) . Butler gets the “Eleven O’clock Number”, a soaring ballad called “Fly, Fly Away”, but because her part is under-developed, it packs no punch.

Still, Catch Me If You Can is a “Strange But True” tale that has become pure magic on the Seattle stage. I hope you’ll catch it, either there or during its sure-to-be triumphant Broadway run. The handsome Tveit may not sing “Come Fly With Me”, but you’ll definitely want to fly his friendly skies as he becomes a huge Broadway star.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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