Flashing back to the summer of 2009. The scene is the 5th Avenue Theater a gi-normous space in downtown Seattle running a hot streak of hosting the world premieres of new musicals that – would you look at that! – manage to transfer to Broadway. “The Wedding Singer,” “Shrek” and, probably the crown jewel, “Hairspray.”
The occasion: Broadway aiming musical number #4, “Catch me if You Can” which reunites the “Hairspray” team of director Jack O’Brien, composer-lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, designers David Rockwell (scenery), William Ivey Long (costume), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and a couple of the cast. Librettist uis Terrence McNally of the O’Brien/Old Globe Theatre-birthed “The Full Monty.”
In fact, the cast is a veritable who’s who of O’Brien-directed musicals past: Kerry Butler, Clarke Thorell and Norbert Leo Butz who won a Tony for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Aaron Tveit, hot off “Next to Normal” plays the baby con man Frank Abignale Jr. who impersonates doctors, lawyers, airline pilots, passing reams of bad checks along the way while FBI bulldog Carl Hanratty tries to track him down.
The verdict: an enormous “Pffft.” The show was a too-long, unfocused, bloated mess with mediocre, non-hummable music, an annoying framing device and – but for a bunch of leggy dancers - a lot of wasted talent. “Catch Me” went on to Broadway where the reviews were indifferent and it was most certainly not a hit. Butz won another Tony, and the show took to the road, with a non Equity cast.
Catch it if you want at the Pantages Theatre. Even Butz-less, the show is now stronger than it was pre-Broadway, but it’s still not much of a product.
You kind of get the idea that the producers figured if they were going to tour “Catch Me,” give its non boffo standing, they would try to do it at least partially on the cheap. Don‘t get me wrong. Given its technical frills - particularly Posner’s lighting, the orchestra and the sheer size of the company - what’s on stage does not look chintzy. They just didn’t shell out for name actors.
Which is a mixed blessing. Butz and Tveit, as a pair of anti-heroes trying to one-up each other, were both plenty appealing. Narratively and construction-wise, “Catch Me” is enough of a wet noodle that a powder keg of a central performance – any powder keg would do – might help distract viewers from realizing that this is 2.5 hours of not much there there. Besides the dancing and the leggy girls, that is.
Stephen Anthony, who resembles a younger Tobey Maguire, induces sighs from the bevy of flight attendants and nurses who orbit Abignale and the requisite opening night screams of adoring opening night fans. It’s hard to buy that this particular Abignale – who doesn’t look like he could grow a single whisker on his face - is in any way driven by his libido. Even his love-at-first-sight connection with low-confidence nurse Brenda Strong (Audrey Mae Davis) feels decidedly cool. Anthony cuts a sharp figure in his assortment of suits and – this being a show about the deceptive nature of appearances – that counts for something. He sings and dances skillfully.
As the dogged FBI grunt Hanratty, Merritt David Janes projects blue collar grunt. He too can sing and hoof it and lends a nice bit of bluesy melancholy to the score’s most interesting number, “The Man Behind the Clues.” Janes’s is not a live wire, or in any way dangerous, performance, but he’s serviceable. Ditto Dominic Fortuna as Abignale’s deadbeat dreamer of a father, Frank, Sr.
Set, as it is, in the ‘60s when the real Abignale was a teen-ager, “Catch Me” catches the look and general vibe of a go-go era. TV is newly colorized, flight attendants are still “stewardesses” who show a lot of leg and nurses are oh –so-willing to take - as the song title indicates – “Doctor’s Orders.” I’d like to think that the “Catch Me” team is going all-in for satire here, but given how disloyal, corny or slutty so many of these women seem to be, it feels more like an embrace of sexism. Mitchell’s dance routines – kick lines and lots of shuffles – are the exceptions.
“Catch me If You Can” made for a cool movie about a very interesting real life character. Ultimately, the musical can’t live up. They seldom do.
"Catch me if You Can" plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sun. through March 24 at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 982-2787, www.HollywoodPantages.com.