BWW Review: Musical Theatre West Brings CATCH ME IF YOU CAN Musical to Long Beach
Right at the start of Musical Theatre West's entertaining, high-energy new production of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN---which continues performances at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach through April 14, 2019---we are dropped right into the pivotal moment when young con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., is finally apprehended at the Miami International Airport, after years of clever evasion, fraudulent practices, and millions of dollars stolen through his various schemes.
Only in the world of musical theater does this seemingly ordinary arrest somehow become the springboard for a frothy 60's variety TV show-flavored retelling of Frank Jr.'s wildly outlandish story, where we discover an ensemble of peppy, tap-happy cast members morph into Vegas-worthy showgirls and showboys moonlighting as his story's unbelievably photogenic and limber nurses and flight attendants.
With an instant tone shift while breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, the charming Frank Jr.---winningly played by Jacob Haren---commandeers the arrest proceedings (and, well, this musical itself) by offering to provide his captors a full, unedited confession of his entire criminal history... but only if he can tell his story his way: as a "live in living color" TV musical variety show, complete with dazzling production numbers that occasionally called for the reluctant participation of Frank Jr.'s main "hunter," gruff FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (a superb Jeff Skowron, in fine character immersion as usual) to play himself in Frank Jr.'s big musical TV show.
What follows is essentially a precisely mapped-out set of flashbacks that act as signposts for significant turning points in this small span of his life---all divided up into easily digestible chunks that are paced out well.
It begins with teenage Frank Jr. first living with his stylish but deeply flawed parents Frank Sr. (Michael Corbett) and Paula (Sandy Barnum) in New Rochelle, New York. All seems well until Frank Sr., plagued with money problems (which will later becomes a recurring motif that haunts both father and son), pulls Frank Jr. from private school and enrolls him in public school. Determined to keep up appearances, Frank Jr. wears his old private school blazer there, which somehow convinces his fellow students that he is actually a substitute French teacher, which he happily pretends to be until he is caught.
Ah! Frank Jr.'s first taste of pretense becomes quickly intoxicating.
Meanwhile his home life implodes when he catches his mother canoodling with a friend of his father's, forcing his parents to later get a divorce. This prompts Frank Jr. to run away from home. Determined to live well beyond his means---both monetarily and by "status"---he develops a knack for writing fake checks, which, surprisingly enough, becomes a successful venture.
And thus begins his life of crime and multiple identities, all prompted by two main factors: his love of women and his deep need for living his life as a "somebody" even if that somebody is, well, someone else entirely. For him, being a "somebody" means having status, getting respect, being someone others admired, and, of course, never having to worry about money---all the things he wished for his own father.
Smart and extremely confident, Frank Jr. as a young teen managed to fake his way into being an airline pilot, and then a doctor. Soon he even falls in love with Brenda Strong (the lovely-voiced Katie Sapper), a nurse at the Atlanta General Hospital where he faked his way to a job.
All the while, Agent Hanratty is chasing every clue and lead, inching closer and closer to the elusive teen, and motivated by the notion that everyone, even a smart kid like Frank Jr. is bound to make a mistake at some point. As we first learned at the top of the show, that prediction indeed comes true.
For the most part, Frank Jr.'s need to control his own narrative at the onset of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is his fantasy-driven, escapist route to, in a way, sugarcoat the crime spree he's about to describe with the sheen and cool of the very personas he pretended to be. As we learn over the course of the musical, much of his raison d'etre is all tied to his immovable need to make everyone around him---including us, the audience---like him. And, boy, does he crave being liked. Heck, he even manages to impress and find commonalities with Agent Hanratty, a curmudgeon on the surface who somehow finds a strange kinship with the young man he is determined to capture.
While certainly not a perfect show, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN in its stage incarnation can be an enjoyable night of theater, especially if you just simply buy into its machination that it is first introduced as a presentation by its lead character in the format of a 60's variety television program, but then forgive it a bit when it suddenly abandons that framework and turns into a traditionally structured book musical every so often. It's not a huge dealbreaker and it really shouldn't be.
This is the stylistic departure from the movie instituted by book writer Terrence McNally for this 2011 Broadway musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg's hit 2002 film scripted by Jeff Nathanson, which itself is inspired by the similarly titled biography written by Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding. And, of course, this new framework gives composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman the opportunity to tap into the sounds of the early 60's that's a lot different from the doo-wop, Motown-esque tunes they crafted for HAIRSPRAY. The songs are fun and tuneful, and many give its actors great material to show off their vocal skills.
The 60's era portrayed in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, just like the film, is not populated by the counterculture hippies of HAIR nor the teeny-boppers of, yes, that other Shaiman/Wittman musical HAIRSPRAY, but rather the cool and stylish, mid-century modern draped, image-obsessed swagger of Mad Men and the Rat Pack. Sprinkled among the visual cues of 60's era TV variety shows are the mod-cool images of Pan Am uniforms clinging onto long-legged stewardesses and the color palette of 60's interiors.
For MTW's enjoyable production of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, director Larry Raben keeps things light and airy, keeping even the serious moments not so dire, and reminding me again just how underrated this show is amongst other movie-based stage musicals.
As with most shows mounted by MTW, the visuals are top-quality, and the musical accompaniment provided by the show's assembled orchestra---under the musical direction of Dennis Castellano---makes for an entertaining listen. Peggy Hickey's appropriate throwback choreography keeps the ensemble moving in great precision.
But perhaps what I enjoyed the most about the production are the performances of its two leading men, a pair of wonderful musical theater actors with great chops individually, and both armed with an instinctive ability to elevate their given material. Skowron's take on Agent Hanratty is both classic and refreshing---an old soul who's also a lonely nerd with spark. The likable Haren, meanwhile, perfectly encapsulates the irrationality and brazen attitude (and the unapologetic horniness) of a young man who sees himself to be untouchable and too smart to be caught, but still vulnerable enough to know that his illegal activities need to end at some point. It also helps that Haren can belt any high notes you throw at him.
On the surface, the stage musical adaptation CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is, for the most part, a sleek, stylish, and abundantly entertaining piece of theater, filled with nostalgic fun and features a plucky anti-hero at its center whose bad behavior can both be seen as terrible and worth cheering for in his sheer audacity and skill. Despite its flaws, the show is a worthy trip back in time.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Performances of Musical Theatre West's production of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN - THE MUSICAL continue through Sunday, April 29, 2018. The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.