The entertainment industry these days has become a vicious circle of finding an interesting property, and then sending it through the various media until it's been bled of all its entertainment value. That may seem a cynical take, but it's easy to see the truth of it just by looking along 42nd Street to see various jukebox musicals and adaptations from movies and TV shows inhabiting Broadway theaters to know that imagination is fighting a losing battle in the mass media arts.
That said, there are some worthy entries, and if there were ever a story interesting enough to warrant investigation across mediums, it'd be that of Frank Abagnale, Jr., most familiar to people from the 2002 Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can, inspired by Abagnale's book of the same title.
The film follows a teenage Frank as he runs away from home, cons his way into millions of dollars and enjoys stints as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. And it's all true. It's such a fantastical tale that adapting it into a musical feels almost like a given. And so, the world has been presented with the musical version of Catch Me If You Can, which played for six months on Broadway in 2011 and is now touring, opening Dallas Summer Musicals' 2013 season at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
Taking place in the 1960s, the dynamic team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who found success with the '60s-set Hairspray, wrote the music, focusing on early-color-TV kind of theme that results in large song and dance numbers, which is both its most crowning achievement and its ultimate undoing.
Changing elements from the popular film, which themselves were embellished already, Frank (Stephen Anthony) finds himself surrounded by FBI agents led by the unflappable Carl Hanratty (Merritt David Janes) in an airport as he attempts to make a getaway. Somehow, Frank convinces Carl to let him tell his story, and with that the show is off and running with the, arguably, biggest and best song of the whole show, "Live in Living Color." What follows is the flashback retelling of the events that led to his capture, including check fraud and impersonating the aforementioned pilot, doctor and lawyer, despite being a teenager.
The story is fantastical, and though embellished, mostly true. It's the kind of thing that couldn't happen in such a romantic way these days as forging a check isn't as simple as buying an old MICR encoder at a bank auction anymore. However, as with any good story, there is a deeper theme at play and that is the divorce of Frank's parents.
The theme of broken homes runs throughout the story, and while Spielberg's film hits on this and really uses it to drive Frank's narrative, the musical version often feels like a collection of listless dialogue just waiting for the next big, foot-tapping number. The story is an afterthought. An odd thing considering that the great Terrence McNally wrote the libretto and Shaiman's and Wittman's work on Hairspray so much more accurately captured the energy of a deeper theme, in that case race relations and acceptance.
Catch Me is a great musical in search of a story. The songs are big and fun and David Rockwell's scene design is a cool blend of 21st century flare with 1960s nostalgia. But it's like no one cared about the non-song parts. Even the placement of some of the songs is suspect. Do we really need the nurses to sing a song? Or was that just an attempt to not have Frank sing every song in the show? Because he does sing in nearly every song, and takes the lead on many of those.
Of course, that might have been a good thing, because outside of Anthony's superlative performance, there was a lot left to be desired. Aubrey Mae Davis is fine as the love interest that finally trips Frank up, Brenda. But her part is minimal. The other two main players in the show are Frank Sr. (Dominic Fortuna) and Hanratty, a role for which Norbert Leo Butz won a Tony Award.
But in this case, neither is particularly memorable. Fans of the film will remember that Frank Sr. was played by Christopher Walken and Hanratty by Tom Hanks. Fair or not, both actors carved out fairly well-defined personas for their characters. Fortuna comes off as a rougher version of Frank Sr. And while that may have been slightly more accurate to the real life man, whose business collapsed after allegations of tax fraud, it doesn't fit the way the character is written, which is more of a charming idealist who might just be a bit gullible.
In the case of Janes, his Hanratty simply lacks presence and command. He's supposed to be the indomitable, tireless G-man who hunts Frank to the ends of the earth while simultaneously developing an odd father/son connection with the kid. And aside from the fact that he appears to be pretty young for the role, he just comes off as a stereotypically irritable police officer. For a role that won its original portrayer a Tony, this fell flat.
Nevertheless, the formula works and it's hard to get too down on what proves to be a relatively fun show, despite reflection revealing it to just be a life-support system for over-the-top Broadway songs.
So in a way, maybe the creative team has pulled off a con not unlike one Frank Abagnale would have. They took a blank check, forged "Big Hit" onto the remitter panel and had us cash it for them. In the end, the audience is out a few bucks, but has a decent story to tell.