Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and the cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and the cast of Catch Me If You Can. Photo by Margot Schulman.

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They still haven’t caught it.

Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and librettist Terrence McNally first musical-ized the much-loved 2002 Steven Spielberg caper Catch Me If You Can on Broadway 11 years ago. Though the show got a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical, its authors must have felt there was room for improvement because Arena Stage’s current production features a new book—or at least a different book, one derived, according to dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke’s program note, from McNally’s pre-Broadway drafts, and further altered by Clarke and director Molly Smith—and restores two songs previously cut from the 2011 iteration. 

Despite the tinkering, Catch Me-the-musical-V.2 remains a handsome but shallow-at-best, cynical-at-worst translation of a much richer, warmer, and more reflective film. It keeps the movie’s rosy view of the short-hair-and-fedoras part of the 1960s when Frank was a more influential cultural figure than John, Paul, George, or Ringo. (Alexander Dodge’s gaudy, game-show-styled set might leave you thinking the show was sponsored by Pan Am, whose blue logo is still synonymous with midcentury glamor even though the airline went bankrupt 30 years ago.) But it dumps the subtleties of character and subtext that Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathan, not to mention co-leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, skillfully threaded beneath all the ring-a-ding-ding. 

The show, like the film, romanticizes the youthful swindles of con man—or rather, con teen—Frank Abagnale Jr., who forged more than $2 million in bad checks and claims to have successfully impersonated an airline pilot and a hospital physician for extended periods of time. In the four decades since he published his tall taled memoir, and especially in the two decades since it became the basis of a star-studded hit film, plenty of evidence has emerged that many of the more spectacular line items on Abagnale’s criminal resume are just as dubious as the accomplishments he claimed on the right side of law. For showbiz purposes, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the show is trying to stuff too much vapid spectacle into the metaphorical overhead bin of its Boeing 707.

If you discount the intermission, the show matches the film’s 140-minute running time almost exactly. That means McNally, who died of coronavirus complications two years ago, and subsequently Smith and Clarke did a lot of razing to make room for 16 numbers, none of which are knockouts and all of which reflect the musical styles of the ’50s and early ’60s, even though the story goes through 1969. Pop music changed a lot during that decade, not that you’d know it from the songs that Shaiman and Wittman—who won Tony Awards for their 1962-set Hairspary—have supplied. John Williams’ impish, slyly insistent score for Spielberg’s film was more memorable than any of the ersatz Brill Building knockoffs we get here.

McNally’s book makes at least one inexplicable change to the plot: In the film, Brenda, the nurse with whom Frank falls in love while pretending to be one of her bosses, was excommunicated by her well-off parents after she had an abortion. In this version, we’re told she simply left her fiancee—the son of one of her father’s associates—at the altar. 

More damaging, however, is the way the musical elides adolescent Frank’s motivation for his years-long nonviolent crime spree: He wants to reunite his divorced parents and restore them to the blue-chip social status they seemed to enjoy when he was little. Costume designer Alejo Vietti tries literally to paper over this dramaturgical omission by dressing the Abagnales’ friends in blazers and dresses patterned after dollar bills in an early party scene. Better to be bold and wrong than timid and wrong, I suppose. The Mondrian-patterned clothes he gives the ensemble for the numbers that open and close the evening are just as abstract, but at least they’re not tacky.

Christian Thompson, stepping into the lead role of Frank for the previously announced Corbin Bleu, is a gifted performer whose job is even trickier than simply competing with our memories of a 27-year-old Leo. DiCaprio just has one of those malleable faces that made you buy that a 17-year-old Frank could go around persuading intelligent people that he was an overachieving man of 30 or so. 

Thompson? Well, he’s an excellent dancer, a very good singer, and a decent actor. But the role defeats him, as it would almost anyone. Nehal Joshi fares better as sad-sack G-man Carl Hanratty, who pursues Frank across years and continents even as his quarry forms an unlikely emotional attachment to him. In the film, this oddly paternal relationship is developed patiently and compellingly; on stage, it feels rushed and rote, and not just because Thompson and Joshi appear to be much closer in age than the 18 years separating DiCaprio and Hanks. 

That’s not to say the nature of their rapport has to be paternal, necessarily, but it should be something. Here it isn’t anything. Maybe Steven Sondheim could have found some way to encode all the contradictions and complexities of Catch Me If You Can’s central relationship into song, but the Hairspray guys haven’t done it. That makes their musical a handsomely dressed, occasionally great-looking huckster, but a huckster all the same.

Catch Me If You Can runs to April 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. $41–$105. (202) 554-9066.