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A FEW NICE SURPRISES

It’s always a pleasure to go into a show with low expectations, or even no expectations, and walk out completely turned around, even flabbergasted at what you’ve just seen, especially in the case of a show that has been lambasted by critics, or has terrible word-of-mouth, or NO word-of-mouth, for that matter. For every “Book Of Mormon”, there is an atrocity like “Baby, It’s You”, for every “War Horse”, there is a train wreck like “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”, for every “Normal Heart”, there is a lackluster “That Championship Season”, for every “Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”, there is a mind-bogglingly bad “Wonderland”. So, it is with extreme happiness I can report that, for me, the nicest surprise of the season, just officially ended, is the terrific Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman musical “Catch Me If You Can”. It is one very happy treat, with three of the best musical performances to be currently found on Broadway, one of which would seem to a shoo-in for an upcoming Tony Award.

“Catch Me If You Can” is based on the Steven Spielberg film of some years back, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as con man extraordinaire, Frank Abagnale, Jr. The story remains the same, of course, that of a young con man who over the course of several years, runs up millions of dollars of debt based on fraudulent checks and money orders, and in the course of that time, passes himself off as a airline pilot, a doctor, and an attorney, all the while being pursued doggedly by FBI bloodhound Carl Hanratty. The real Frank Abagnale is now one of the world’s leading authorities on secure documents, fraud and embezzlement and has been associated with the FBI for more than 35 years. Back in the 60’s, however, Frank managed to elude the FBI by a combination of luck, pluck and ingenuity and it’s that turbulent period of change in American life, the swinging 60’s, the creators of “Catch Me If You Can” choose to celebrate. The musical is set up as a flashback, told at the moment of Frank’s capture at the airport, from Frank’s point of view, in the style of the musical variety shows from the period, shows like “The Dean Martin Show”, “Hullaballoo”, “The Hollywood Palace”, “Sing Along With Mitch” or “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Consequently, Shaiman and Wittman’s witty, avuncular score is a paean to the period- swinging, bopping tunes and soulful ballads of the sort you’d expect to hear sung by Sammy, Frank and Dean back then, written as a sort of homage to the happy, hoppy classics of the sort written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, the ultimate masters of the genre. That Shaiman and Wittman can pull that off is a cool surprise of its own, but there’s a full onstage orchestra led by John McDaniel, of the kind you’d always find on the small screen in those classic tv variety shows.

The cast of the musical is sheer joy, led by a trio of our finest musical comedy stars. Aaron Tveit, last of “Next To Normal” makes a perfect Abagnale-smooth, cocky, drop dead handsome and super confident, he’s onstage for pretty much the whole show, anchoring the piece with his strong vocals and sharp dancing, heartbreaking in his love for his ne’er do well father, played beautifully by Tom Wopat. I recall seeing Mr. Wopat in his first musical back in the mid-70’s, something called “A Bistro Car On The CNR”, which played a tiny basement theatre in the west 40’s. From there, he went on to replace James Naughton in the musical “I Love My Wife”, and from there to the iconic tv series, “The Dukes Of Hazzard”. Wopat is back at what he does best-musical comedy- in the role of Frank Abagnale, Sr., a charming, perpetually inebriated loser, cheering his son on in his newfound notoriety, while drowning himself in booze. The stunning turn in the show, however, as good as Tveit and Wopat are, is the one given by the sensational Norbert Leo Butz, who won a Tony a few years back playing a con man in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. He’s on the other side of the law in this one, playing FBI man Carl Hanratty and Butz does his finest work here since “Scoundrels”. He plays Hanratty as a lovable but shrewd schlub, with a limp and a droopy moustache and a porkpie hat, in pursuit of Abagnale with the ferocity of a tracking dog, ultimately becoming as much of a father figure as Frank, Sr. He is touching in the role, and funny, and a joy to watch, and stops the show cold halfway through the first act with the terrific “Don’t Break The Rules” that shows off all his musical comedy prowess. Butz makes “Catch Me If You Can” a must-see show and hopefully, will score another Tony Award for his efforts.

The other surprise I never saw coming was the gifted Stephen Adly Guirgis play, “The Mother____ With The Hat”, currently in a limited run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. It’s a loud, profane, twisted comedy about toxic relationships and the lies people tell and live with to continue less than perfect relationships. In a nutshell, it’s about Jackie, who lives with Veronica, who’s involved with someone else, presumably, the guy with the titular hat, and Jackie’s relationship with his AA sponsor Ralph D. Ralph’s wife, Victoria, and my favorite character, the enigmatic Cousin Julio, who uses Van Damme as a verb. The cast is terrific, the play obscenely funny, and there is fine work from Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Chris Rock, and Annabella Sciorra, with a scorching, career-changing performance by Yul Vazquez as Julio. Like Butz, Vazquez may be up on the stage of the Beacon Theatre come the night of the Tony Awards. And that would be more than ok by me.