April 17 2013 12:00 AM

Musical hits the right notes, but lacks crackle

The two best things about Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, “Catch Me If You Can,” featuring a slippery counterfeiter and his relentless pursuer, were the Saul Bass-inspired opening credits and Tom Hanks’ R-rated knock-knock joke. Guess what — neither of them made it into the musical adaptation, playing this week at the Wharton Center.

The big question is: Why? Why make a musical out of a second-tier crime caper, which itself was based on the real exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr., who, in the 1960s impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, and forged nearly $2 million in bad checks? It’s not as if the story, the action or the characterizations lend themselves naturally to the medium. It’s an odd choice, to be sure, but stranger adaptations have been prosperous. The success of “Newsies” and “Billy Elliot” were all but a sure thing when they bowed within the last decade. 

But with “Catch Me,” there’s not much to hang your hat on. The musical offers no expansion of a story that was probably best left on the video shelf. In this incarnation, are we to believe that Abagnale, this fresh-faced kid with the cracking voice, is really a chick-crazy horndog? That his foil, Carl Hanratty, who friskily skips across the stage, is a world-weary G-Man? That Mrs. Abagnale has anything resembling a French accent?

The orchestra is cleverly incorporated into the swoopy set design, which gave the stage a signature look and a novel entrance/exit vehicle for the cast. Stephen Anthony, who plays Abagnale, and Merrit David Jones, as Hanratty, have American Idol-ready voices and nail every last one of their characters’ beats. Even the supporting members of the ensemble hit all of their notes when it’s their turn.

Everyone paints perfectly well within this paint-by-numbers production. But even the nearly two-dozen halfhearted new songs from Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray”) run out of steam by the third number.

In the end, it just all feels so doggone cumbersome. Aren’t escapades supposed to be, you know, escapade-y? Where the film was powered by the one-two-three crackle of Leonardo DiCaprio’s charm, Hanks’ star wattage and Spielberg’s whiz-bang (if not necessarily zippy) direction, the musical has a decent jazzy score and a guileless leading young man. But that’s about it — and that’s certainly not enough to warrant a three-hour show. 

“Catch Me If You Can”
Wharton Center
Through April 21
7:30 p.m.