‘Catch Me If You Can’ is the great Broadway heist

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Big numbers, little payoff. ()
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Despite the title, there’s not a lot of chasing in Catch Me If You Can. This musical cops-and-robbers caper reveals its ending in the first few minutes, so there’s never any doubt that the lovable con artist whose career it chronicles will end up in handcuffs.

And the musical itself is a bit of a heist. It feels almost like it's lifted from other, better musicals by the creative team of songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) and librettist Terrence McNally (Ragtime, The Full Monty), and given the real life of Frank Abagnale Jr., upon whom the movie Catch Me If You Can was based, lifted from pretty obvious places. Starting with Chicago.

Instead of two women of the Chicago underworld imaging their lives as a vaudeville act, Catch Me If You Can features the young Abagnale, a smooth-talking teenager who back in the 1960s stole a couple of million dollars while impersonating a doctor, lawyer, college professor, and pilot for Pan Am, and who sees his story as a television variety show.

It opens with “Live in Living Color,” a bit of eardrum-bursting sensory overload that more closely resembles schlock from the '70s than what was actually being broadcast in the '60s. (In fact, shows like Shingdig! and "Hullabaloo," on the air at the time, had the impromptu feel of teenage dance parties.) The number does little more than kill a few minutes at the top of the show.

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There are a lot of plot-stopping production numbers in Catch Me If You Can, all basically interchangeable. Frank decides to impersonate a pilot and the sexy stewardesses arrive on cue to sing about how they love being part of the “Jet Set.” He passes himself off as a doctor and the naughty nurses proclaim their desire to take “Doctor’s Orders.” (The costumes worn by the chorus girls are so ludicrously short that you wonder if the “catching” in the title refers to a cold.) Jerry Mitchell’s by-the-numbers choreography, which owes surprisingly little to the dance styles of the '60s, doesn’t help distinguish one song from another. And David Rockwell’s static set, a cavernous television studio, adds zero visual interest.

McNally’s book, which owes more than a tip of the hat to How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, is little more than a laundry list of Frank’s career highs and lows. It jettisons much of the real-life drama, such as his daring escapes from a jumbo jet and a federal prison, in favor of a hackneyed back-story about his unhappy childhood, presumably easier to dramatize in song and dance? Anyway it’s a snooze compared to Steven Spielberg’s breathless movie version of the same story.

It’s no shocker that the best number of the first act is “Don’t Break the Rules,” sung by Broadway veteran Norbert Leo Butz. His gruff F.B.I. agent is as much a cliché as anyone else he's sharing the stage with, but Butz gives the character a sadness and vulnerability that makes him irresistible. You find yourself rooting for him in his pursuit of Frank, which is probably not what the creators had in mind.

Aaron Tveit, best known as the imaginary son in Next to Normal, plays a surprisingly similar role here. The Frank that most of the characters think they know doesn’t really exist. He’s a blank page that others write on, so an actor can’t imbue him with too much personality. Tveit is blandly handsome and vaguely charming, which are just about right for the role. He does have an impressive singing voice, which he shows off best in “Good-Bye,” a parting shot that seeks to accomplish what “Rose’s Turn” did in Gypsy.

Kerry Butler (fantastic in Xanadu) makes a big impression in a rather small role as Frank’s girlfriend Brenda. Her duet with Frank is sweet and forgettable, but she soars with her ballad “Fly, Fly Away.” Nick Wyman and Linda Hart are fun as Frank’s future in-laws, although the meet-the-parents scene is straight out of La Cage aux Folles.

You can’t help but admire Tom Wopat, who plays Frank’s alcoholic father. His whisky-soaked voice, which has gotten deeper and richer over the years, couldn’t be better suited for the role. And his character’s long slide into decrepitude is truly moving. In his last big scene he tries to reprise his big number, but the orchestra steadfastly refuses to join him. The spotlight slowly fading on his hunched-over frame is a rare quiet moment in a show that rarely modulates its tone beyond fast, loud, and obvious.

Catch Me If You Can is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets are available at 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com.