In 2002, composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman took Broadway by storm with Hairspray, which won eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical and Best Score for Shaiman/Wittman) and was the unexpected runaway hit of its season. That delightfully old-fashioned adaptation of a subversive John Waters film set in 1960s Baltimore was one of the least likely combinations for Broadway success. This spring, Shaiman and Wittman (along with director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell) brought their follow-up to Broadway in the form of another musical based on a ’60s-set movie, Catch Me If You Can.
Based on the truly incredible real story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., the musical tells the story of a teenaged con man who forged checks worth millions of dollars, and the FBI Agent hot on his trail, Catch Me If You Can is typically regarded as a minor work in Steven Spielberg’s career, a lightweight, highly entertaining exercise in stylish storytelling and a “can-you-believe-it?” plotline. The musical adaptation of Catch Me might be considered a similarly minor achievement; filled with excellently crafted music and fine performances by its four main actors. It ultimately lands somewhere between a good musical with holes and a promisingly unsuccessful production.
The good news for the cast recording, however, is that most of the problems relate to the musical’s framing device (Frank, caught by Agent Hanratty at last, decides his way out of the jam will be to put on a show explaining his story. If this doesn’t read like a good idea for a musical, well, it probably isn’t.) The songs themselves, each and every one an excellent recreation of various types of sounds of the ’60s, only carry brief reminders of the show’s misguided premise. We get the obligatory variety-show opening number, “Live in Living Color,” in which Frank brightly establishes his tone for the show as master of ceremonies and showman par excellence. After that, the score proceeds in chronological order as Frank departs on his fraudulent journey, and this recording mercifully follows only the songs with just hints of Frank’s over-arching narration here and there.
Among the sixteen songs presented here (and an additional bonus track cut from the show after pre-Broadway tryouts) are some truly worthy standouts. “Don’t Break the Rules” was the number selected by the producers to be showcased at the Tonys this year, and it’s a true showstopper largely thanks to Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz (who won his second Best Actor for this show.) It establishes Agent Hanratty’s moral compass and viewpoint in what he sees as the black-and-white world of good guys and bad guys. Butz imbues it with his typically uncontrollable energy and, by song’s end, it’s the kind of vibrant highlight many musicals don’t ever achieve.
Another major highlight is “Fly, Fly Away.” Sung by Brenda, the nurse who becomes Frank’s fiancée when he tries to settle down as a lawyer in Louisiana after a few close calls, it’s a slowburning gospel-styled ballad that is given a stratospheric performance by Kerry Butler. Brenda only gets real stage time in the second act, and the exceedingly talented Butler makes the best of her limited opportunity here with this song and her charmingly cheesy-in-love duet with Frank, “Seven Wonders.”
Aaron Tveit also must be remarked upon, as Frank really is the heart of the show. Even though Butz won the Tony for Best Actor, he’s a borderline supporting player here. Tveit carries the show, and he’s got a fabulous not-quite closing number, “Goodbye” (which ends his show-within-the-show, but not the actual show. Again, the premise doesn’t exactly fire on all cylinders.) He sings with tremendous clarity and fully deserves this, his first leading role on Broadway.
There are still problems from the musical evident on this cast recording. Two songs, “Jet Set” and “Doctor’s Orders,” are unnecessary scene-setters for the ensemble, establishing that Frank is now passing as an airline pilot and doctor, respectively. “(Our) Family Tree,” the scene-setting ensemble number for the Strong family in Louisiana, is redeemed only by its unique New Orleans flair. Frank’s parents have more songs than the plot justifies, though his father’s anti-nostalgic duet with Hanratty, “Little Boy, Be a Man,” is a standout from the numbers featuring the elder Abagnales. Tom Wopat, as Frank’s father, doesn’t seem to have as strong a bass range as he did twelve years ago on the Annie Get Your Gun recording.
The problems with the show shouldn’t necessarily detract from this album, however. It’s presented with pristine performances by the more-than-able band, and the score sounds fantastic here. Crisp percussion, sharp brass, and pristine vocals ring across the board on this recording. Catch Me If You Can may have flaws, but they are minimized when presented with just the score, which presents the show’s highlights: a swingin’ ’60’s brassy score, passionate performances and a few legitimate showstoppers.