"Catch Me If You Can," the Broadway-bound, world-premiere stage adaptation of the hit film, delivers as a poignant, well-acted, pop-savvy albeit not fully jelled, musical. The overlong show has some bumps, but the cast — led by Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz in the Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks roles — is outstanding in...

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Theater Review |

Like the sleek Boeing jets that flew the friendly skies in the 1960s, 5th Avenue Theatre’s world premiere of musical “Catch Me If You Can” is one deluxe vehicle.

The acting crew is headed by sensational young Aaron Tveit as real-life teen con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., and superb Broadway funnyman Norbert Leo Butz as Carl Hanratty, the dogged FBI agent who hunts Frank down (roles played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in the Steven Spielberg flick the musical’s based on).

The ground crew for “Catch Me If You Can” is solid Broadway A-list also, with much of the team from the Broadway smash “Hairspray,” debuted at the 5th Avenue in 2002. Both shows are equipped with smart, melodious scores by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, sleek direction by Jack O’Brien and vivacious dances devised by Jerry Mitchell. And in this case, leading playwright Terrence McNally wrote the book.

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Like “Hairspray,” this is a pop-savvy period piece, dispatched with gusto and panache. Yet even with superior pilots, the show isn’t always sure where it’s headed. And it’s a longer (three hours), bumpier jaunt than need be, with a few questionable detours en route.

As in the film, McNally’s treatment starts with Hanratty’s long-sought arrest of Frank. In a snazzy opening number, “Live in Living Color,” golden-voiced, mojo-powered Tveit begins to re-enact his flimflam memoir.

Though it helps to park a swell, swinging orchestra onstage, led with Mancini-esque tang by John McDaniel, the early framing device of a ’60s TV variety special kind of fizzles away. (What Broadway musical needs an excuse for song-and-dance flashbacks anyhow?)

After lift off, “Catch Me” rushes through quick glimpses of Frank’s home life, with Frank Sr., the failed merchant dad he idealizes (a perfectly cast, raffishly poignant Tom Wopat), and with a French mother (the glamorous Rachel de Benedet), who trades up maritally as Hubby No. 1 bottoms out.

But soon Frank Jr. runs off to escape a painful custody battle, and, as the transitional song declares, uses his charm and chutzpah to disappear into “Someone Else’s Skin” — and make some good moola doing it.

Against set designer David Rockwell’s vibrating LED screens of computerized op-art patterns and geographical images, Tveit’s Frank exuberantly impersonates a Pan Am pilot in New York (“The Jet Set”), an ER physician in Atlanta (“Doctor’s Orders”), and a would-be lawyer in New Orleans (where he romances a peer, for a change: the sweet, guileless Brenda, played by terrific “Hairspray” alum Kerry Butler).

On a parallel flight pattern, nebbishy, intent FBI man Hanratty gets on Frank’s case — with the wordy ditty “Here I Am (To Save the Day)” — and develop his cat-and-mouse relations with his wily mark.

But this isn’t “Les Miz,” set during a world-shaking revolution. Or “Hairspray,” championing civil rights. To give a slick, well-crafted caper comedy more emotional heft, “Catch Me if You Can” intensifies a three-way, father-son dynamic, less-developed on film, between the lonely, honest FBI sleuth, the runaway kid and the failed dad. That spurs some of the best numbers: the richly witty con man’s credo “Butter Outta Cream”; the boozy bar ode to the pitfalls of fatherhood, “Little Boy Be a Man.”

The cranked-up, together-at-last finale, “Strange But True,” feels forced, however. And there’s a whiff of mawkishness whenever “Catch Me” stops seeing Frank’s world through ’60s-cool aviator shades and strains for heavy sentiments.

The most worrisome case is Butler’s fervent, gospel-fired love anthem, “Fly, Fly Away.” This late-inning song, like so much in the Shaiman-Wittman score, has a great hook and is splendidly sung. But the overheated Whitney Houston-style ballad clashes with the more urbane, jazzier, more ironic tenor of much of the score (including a mock-Lawrence Welk singalong ditty out of left field, “Bury Me Beside the One I Love”).

If Frank is the hero of sweet little Brenda’s dreams, his decision to “go straight” is handled with a muddled mingling of bravura and relief that doesn’t really wash.

Conversely, some of the leggy, lascivious Playboy bunny-esque antics could be lost, and much of the crude, guys-will-be-guys banter of Hanratty’s FBI chums.

There’s still so much here of value and pizazz — from the Pan Am kick-line, to the sublimely wry bossa-nova ballad “Don’t Be a Stranger,” to the major performances in a cast of luxury-liner luster.

The show’s creators have work to do, paring some things down and building their best stuff up, before a not-yet-set Broadway opening. But once it knows exactly where it’s going, and how to get there, “Catch Me If You Can” could really take flight.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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