Frank Abagnale, Jr. went by many names, but by 21, after forging $2.5 million in bad checks, the U.S. government gave him a permanent one: criminal. He served several years in prison before becoming a 35-year consultant for the FBI. So stunning were his frauds -- both financial and personal -- they were turned into a Steven Spielberg movie. Now, his youthful Sixties crime spree has come to Broadway, in the musical Catch Me If You Can.
On the plus side, Catch Me, at the Neil Simon, boasts two incredibly entertaining leads -- a sensational Aaron Tveit as the charismatic Frank, and the always superb Norbert Leo Butz as Carl Hannraty, the crumply married-to-the job FBI agent who ultimately catches him.
Structured as a variety show, Tveit is a perfect leading man -- handsome, talented and suave -- and he glides across the stage with élan. Butz provides both comic relief and a moral center; he knocks the number "Don't Break the Rules" out of the park, a telling moment in production that boasts leggy splash, this being the 1960s, but little weight.
According to the show, Frank's overriding motivation was to impress girls. Unfortunately, the musical is all razzle -- no dazzle -- despite the zippy Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman score, the duo behind Hairspray. It perfectly evokes the period and focuses largely on the emotional father (Tom Wopat)-son relationship; suggesting his parents' breakup may have helped kick-start young Frank's felonies and knack for impersonation.
By 21, he had successfully impersonated a co-pilot, doctor and lawyer. Or in his words: "misdirection, keep talking and look them in the eye." Also, cut and paste a degree from Harvard; people believe what you tell them. That sentiment is nicely nailed in "The Pinstripes Are All That They See."
Now, father-son relationships are usually solid dramatic terrain, but on the debit side, the production is all surface. The choreography is Vegas glitzy, rather than wowing, and the subplot, with Brenda (a wasted Kerry Butler) as the love interest, is occasionally funny but more often trite. What we find in Catch Me is a lost opportunity.
A far more inventive production is playing its final weeks at the New York Theatre Workshop. Peter and the Starcatcher is a reminder of how enormously entertaining and thoughtful a Peter Pan prequel can be. Rick Elice's text, based on the Starcatcher book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is clever and touching. It opens in Victorian England -- with every cruelty and affectation in place.
Three orphan boys are placed on a ship headed to Rangoon. On the upper deck is young Molly (Celia Kennan-Bolger) and her father Lord Aster (Karl Kenzler), set on a secret mission. At the same time a second ship, the Neverland, commanded by campy pirate Black Stache (Christian Borle) is determined to stop them.
Young Molly, a starcatcher-in-training, befriends Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) and company, and together, alongside her nanny (Arnie Burton) they are hurled into a series of wild and crazy adventures. Peter and the Starcatcher manages sly humor and a terrific back story, expertly staged, thanks to masterful design and direction. It's off-Broadway at its best.
Urge For Going at the Public Theater, also focuses on a young girl. But the thrust is serious and political. A Palestinian family has spent decades in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Jamila (Tala Ashe) is studious; she dreams of college and traveling to Europe. Her father, a former Wordsworth scholar who had a brief success in London, has kept her apolitical. By contrast, her uncles engage in angry discussions about their fate.
There is the usual anti-Israeli screed, but to playwright Mona Mansour's credit, she also indicts Arab violence and the refusal of Lebanon (along with Syrian and Jordan) to assimilate the Palestinians into their countries. Her brother Jul (Omid Abtahi) is destroyed not by Israel, but by brutal Lebanese guards, a reminder the situation in the Mideast is complicated and multifaceted.
The human struggles and familial tensions between father and daughter are real and well-delivered, but the play is more exposition than drama. And while Urge's adults speak with Arab accents, the two teens sound wholly Western. The women aren't wearing burkas or hijabs; there is no mention of religion. The action, performed by a capable cast, takes place at the kitchen table, where Mansour turns a sensitive eye to those trapped by circumstances beyond their control.