In this theater publicity image released by The Hartman Group,...

In this theater publicity image released by The Hartman Group, Norbert Leo Butz performs in "Catch Me If You Can," at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. Credit: AP

News that the guys from "Hairspray" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" were making a musical based on the movie "Catch Me If You Can" raised a couple of intriguing -- also daunting -- questions. How? And why?

That is, how could songs, dances and a Broadway stage add to the plot-heavy adventures of a real-life teen con man without losing the odd and breezy travelogue style of Steven Spielberg's 2002 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks? This is answered, sort of, by framing the kid's life as flashbacks on his own '60s TV variety show.

OK, then, why? Hard to guess, alas. Director Jack O'Brien, writer Terrence McNally, composer Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman have made a slick, professional, conscientious and uninspired show that strains to fit Frank Abagnale Jr.'s improbably true tale into a stylized box of sentimentality and ho-hum retro-routines.

Of course, the theater has taught us that life is a cabaret. But life as a cheesy '60s TV show with an onstage studio orchestra isn't quite so fascinating. And, though Aaron Tveit is a talented actor with a pleasant manner and a high, flexible falsetto, he doesn't have the charisma to drive a whole show about a check-forging loner who, in a two-year spree, charms people into believing he's a pilot, a pediatrician, a lawyer and a lady killer.

He needs to play off someone, and he gets it whenever Norbert Leo Butz, the theater's ace character actor and irrepressible force of nature, steps into the void. With a waddle in his walk and a wince under his hat, Butz is almost unrecognizably nerdy as the obsessed FBI drone -- Javert to Frank's Valjean. When Butz launches into his poor-man's jazz-tinged noir explosions, we become aware how much joy is missing elsewhere.

Tom Wopat has the wry poignancy of seedy grandiosity as Frank's beloved scam-losing father, and Kerry Butler, as Frank's love, has a sweetness that finally opens up in a '60s girl ballad, "Fly, Fly Away." The well-crafted music is an intentional homage to the era's torch songs, country, big-band and dopey pop. Chorus femmes with short shirts and long legs play stewardesses, nurses and dancers with choreography that reflects the era's insipid TV dance accurately.

Make that too accurately.

WHAT "Catch Me If You Can"

WHERE Neil Simon

Theatre, 250 W. 52ndSt.

INFO $30-$137; 877-250-2929;

BOTTOM LINE Fumbles the catch

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