BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
“Catch Me If You Can” may soar only occasionally, but the show surely gets you to your destination, which is bright Broadway entertainment that’s escapist in more ways than one.
Cleverly drawn from the popular Leonardo DiCaprio-Tom Hanks movie about the mid-1960s exploits of a teenaged con-artist, the new musical opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre in a swift production by director Jack O’Brien.
Smoothly crafted by songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the team whose “Hairspray” was slickly realized by O’Brien), in collaboration with book-writer Terrence McNally (who devised “The Full Monty” with the same director), “Catch Me If You Can” expertly provides a darned good story, a perky score, tip-top performances and glossy visuals.
The tale regards Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Aaron Tveit), a personable teenager who successfully poses as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, all the while being chased along a trail of rubber checks by FBI agent Carl Henratty (Norbert Leo Butz).
McNally’s nimble libretto frames the musical in the format of an old-time TV variety special. Think “The Dean Martin Show.” You are in the studio audience, seeing this escapade play out amid a swinging-60s grab bag of tunes while Golddiggers-type dancers gyrate and the leading men trade Rat Pack-y banter.
Sleekly accommodating the concept, designer David Rockwell situates the white-jacketed orchestra musicians onstage in a bandstand and deftly materializes scenic bits for many locations as needed.
Returning to the musical era of “Hairspray,” Shaiman and Wittman pop out a variety of bouncy numbers from the finger-snapping “Live in Living Color” opener and jaunty “Jet Set” (served complete with a kick-line of leggy stewardesses) to a bluesy “Little Boy, Be a Man” saloon song. There is even a cute homage to Mitch Miller. The loveliest item in the score is “Fly, Fly Away,” a slow-rocking R & B honey of a soulful ballad that musically rises up to its title with girl-group colorings and a fervent rendition by Kerry Butler as Frank’s bewildered fiancée.
The lyrics are smart, the tunes usually are upbeat and the orchestrations/arrangements are witty, all of which propel the show along quickly and divertingly. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s busy, energetic “Hullabaloo”-style dances fit the period and format.
Suggesting a younger version of Mathew Morrison, the gleaming Tveit gives Frank a winning smile and gobs of boyish charm. Tom Wopat and Rachel de Benedet gracefully portray Frank’s mismatched parents while Butler is perfectly ingenuous as the hero’s innocent sweetie.
The memorable performance to treasure is Butz’s sly portrayal of the dogged Henratty, a potbellied FBI drudge with a toothbrush mustache and a waddling walk. Butz’s unprepossessing flatfoot maintains secret reserves, however, which gloriously blaze forth when he comically stomps his way through “Don’t Break the Rules,” a pulsating song-and-dance turn with the other FBI agents that stops the show.
A thoroughly professional endeavor, “Catch Me If You Can” is not the most brilliant or original musical ever to land on Broadway, but it confidently provides audiences with a tuneful diversion that flies along very agreeably.
“Catch Me If You Can” continues at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St., New York. Call (877) 250-2929 or visit www.catchmethemusical.com