One of History’s Great Con Men Is Back, and with Panache

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

‘Catch Me If You Can’
250 Neil Simon Theater
Need W. 52d St.
New York, N.Y.

Everybody seemed to have the same reaction to the film ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, that debuted in 1999. The late 1960s story about a notorious con man who stole nearly $2 million was hard to believe, the plot difficult to follow and the criminality inexcusable. But I, like just about everybody in the country, thought the movie was charming. How do you not love a guy who can successfully pretend to be a lawyer, a doctor and an airline pilot, too? And, for awhile, get away with it?

Americans love criminals. We hate what they do, but we admire them, in an odd way. We see some of them as latter day Robin Hoods. Remember Jesse James? Al Capone?  Bonnie and Clyde? And now, in ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ the young, flashy, unbelievably self confident and smooth Frank Abagnale Jr., the slickest, handsomest con man that ever graced the silver screen and now the theater.

When I first saw ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ I never thought it could be turned into a Broadway musical. A play, yes. A musical, no. Yet that is exactly what has happened. Now young Frank the likable thief is chased diligently by gritty and determined FBI agent Carl Hanratty and his crew to music.

The FBI will never be the same.

‘Catch Me If You Can’ is a fast-moving, upbeat, colorful 1960s style runaway hit musical, a delightful and mesmerizing show that, like the film, will send you home hating and loving Frank Abagnale Jr. at the same time. I mean, after all, he may have stolen $2 million, committed fraud in half the states in the Union and was wanted on five continents, but he didn’t kill anybody, did he? Why is everybody on stage so mad at him?

The story begins when Frank, 16, swindles his father. Frank jumps on a train and heads for New York. He cons his way into becoming an airline pilot, with absolutely no training. Then, with less training than that, he cons himself into a job as a doctor and is put in charge of the emergency room at a large Georgia hospital. He then breezes through a career as a fake lawyer. Along the way he engages in check theft, credit fraud, grand larceny, identity theft, legal misrepresentation and a host of other crimes. He moves from state to state, woman to woman, job to job and finally appears ready to be married and settle down. The FBI, and Hanratty, are after him all of this time, always out of breath and a step behind.

Why is this joyous romp through U.S. history so much fun?

The primary reason is the acting of Aaron Tveit as Frank, just 20 when most of the action in the play takes place, and Norbert Leo Butz as FBI agent Hanratty. They are a lovable pair. Tveit is incredibly charming and talks his way out of just about every jam in which he finds himself, and there are many. Armed with good looks, an everlasting smile and a ton of oozing charm, he glides through America with one hand in the air waving and the other in somebody’s wallet. Hanratty is played wonderfully by Norbert  Leo Butz, a theater veteran. Hanratty is at the other side of the world from Frank, an ordinary agent who is overweight, dresses badly and is just trying to do his job.

The pair steals the show, but the rest of the cast does well in carrying the story. Tom Wopat is smug and sad as Frank’s irresponsible dad, Rachel de Benedet is gorgeous and beguiling as his mom, Kerry Butler is good as fiancée Brenda Strong and Nick Wyman and Linda Hart, as Brenda’s parents, are unique characters and delightful bursts of energy, filling small but powerful roles in the show.

The songs help to tell the story and blend into the play. They contain some very funny lyrics. There is no memorable tune from the play, but the music works well and sets the mood. The play actually opens in a gaudy Miami, Florida, night club with a big band playing their hearts out. Gorgeous female dancers accompany Frank in most of his songs.

Director Jack O’Brien does a fine job of keeping the story moving along while at the same time incorporating the music of composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman and the sharp choreography of Jerry Mitchell into the tale.

Terrance McNally’s book is a near carbon copy of the movie script, but he has made the role of Hanratty larger than in the film (Tom Hanks played Hanratty in the movie), and wisely so. If you liked the movie, you’ll love the play. If you never saw the movie, you’ll still love he play.

The show is very good, but has its problems. There are few sets. Shaiman and Wittman have put in far too many songs. Their twenty could be cut down to 15 or 16. Besides the characters of con man Frank and FBI agent Hanratty, there is not enough character development in the show. The plot of the play needs to be tighter. Despite all that, ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is a terrific show and a history lover’s delight.  

This 1960s era play is loaded with historical notes, from references to New York Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to dialogue about actor Steve McQueen and ‘60s acting icon Shelley Winters. The FBI agents all dress in the staid old grey suits so popular in the ‘60s, complete with narrow black ties and fedoras. The huge, brightly painted nightclub set screams 1960s at you, old ‘60s neon signs for bars and hotels light up the stage and a recreated ‘60s Miami International airport appears at the start and finish of the play. All that seems needed is a battered Richard Nixon campaign poster, some Beatles songs and an anti-Vietnam war protest march.

At first, I was befuddled that the late 1960s era play had nothing in it about Civil Rights, student unrest or the Vietnam War, but, then again, those events were not part of Frank’s story. He was too busy duping people and stealing money to get involved with the issues of the day.

God bless Frank, and check your wallet.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Stacey Mindich,Yasuhiro Kawana, Scott and Brian Zellinger, the Rialto Group, others. Set: David Rockwell, Costumes: William Ivey Long, Lighting: Kenneth Posner, Sound: Steve Canyon Kennedy. Directed by Jack O’Brien.

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