Interview: Molly Smith of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN at Arena Stage

By: Mar. 14, 2022

Interview: Molly Smith of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN at Arena Stage With it being an election year, you don't exactly have to be a cynic to think the last thing Washington needs right now is a tale about a con artist. And yet, for Director Molly Smith the musical Catch Me If You Can is more than just 'a story about fame and money' with 'more curves than a Playboy bunny' as the opening number promises. At its core is something much more universal, something we're all longing for during these turbulent times - the search for truth.

"The beating heart of the story is the relationship between fathers and sons, both biographical and created. It's about searching for the truth. So that makes it a perfect musical for right now, exposing the con man and accepting the truth before he confesses and accepts the punishment," says Smith over email to BroadwayWorld DC.

The musical, now playing at Arena Stage, is based on the best selling book and classic movie of the same name. It follows Frank Abagnale, Jr.'s exploits masquerading as a Pan Am pilot and doctor, among other professions, while also cashing millions of dollars in fake checks and attracting the attention of the FBI.

Featuring a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the same team behind the musical Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can had a brief Broadway run in the Spring of 2011. Not only did it open to mixed reviews, it also opened within weeks of the musical juggernaut The Book of Mormon, leaving it to be forgotten by audiences. Combined, all of these factors may make it seem like an odd choice for Arena and Smith, given their history of breathing new life into classic musicals.

"It's true that I love the Golden Age of musicals, but remember Arena premiered Dear Evan Hansen and other new musicals like Dave," says Smith. "We have also produced the second production of Next to Normal before it went to Broadway and A Night with Janis Joplin, among others. I believe the American musical is our Shakespeare-and it demands to be re-interpreted for each generation."

To achieve that reinterpretation, Arena was given an opportunity to revisit an earlier version of the musical. That almost never happens, and is extremely rare, especially if a musical has run on Broadway.

"With the blessing of the original creators [Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and Tom Kirdahy representing Terrence McNally], we had the opportunity to look through different versions of the book and music and focus on the through line of fathers and sons in a more streamlined way. Plus we are producing a never before seen version of Terrence McNally's book for the musical," says Smith.

On Broadway, Catch Me If You Can was originally staged as a sixties song and dance extravaganza, reminiscent of the television variety programs that once dominated the airwaves. This may seem like an inspired choice given the variety of professionals Abagnale impersonated, but the decision made the show seem formulaic - not exactly the hallmark of a successful con.

So what can DC audiences expect?

"Our production is a game show-Frank's Game Show, like the Price is Right or Name That Tune or Truth or Consequences-with everyone in on the game," says Smith. "Everyone will recognize the game show as soon as they walk in the theater. The look of the show is inspired by pulp fiction, referencing illustrations from the 1960s, like James Bama."

Smith adds, "The choreography is sexy, ironic, grounded in modern jazz. The music is thrilling, truly jazz and big band. We have included two songs that were not in the Broadway version too-'50 Checks' and 'Here I Am to Save the Day'-it's exciting to hear this music echoing down the halls of Arena."

For fans of the show, of which I am one, the inclusion of these songs makes Arena's revival all the more exciting. Additionally, it feels like a welcome respite for a capital city combating a seemingly endless list of challenges.

"Catch Me If You Can speaks to our time through humor, music and dance. This is a moment when I think we can bring a tremendous amount of joy and light and pleasure into our lives. It's a difficult time in the world and all of our collective hearts are aching with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The play was chosen long before that sadness, but still with the idea that a fun adventure story was needed for our collective psyches," says Smith.

Catch Me If You Can is not Smith's first musical with a con artist at the heart of it. In 2012, she directed a hit production of The Music Man, whose main character, Professor Harold Hill, could give Abagnale a run for his money. What is it about these men who have the ability to make us see what we want, and to command the stage while doing so, that lends itself to the theater?

"I think we are all intrigued by the charming person who can make people act out of their comfort zone, and then exposing that charming person to the real truth," reflects Smith. "In The Music Man, Harold Hill opens up the citizens to a whole new world of seeing themselves creatively and what a rush of feeling accompanies this change. There is an essential optimism, kinetic energy and spirit in the musical art form which reminds us about something central about America at its best."

Indeed Smith's sentiments are echoed by Abagnale himself who tells the audience in his first number, 'I wanna feel, not just survive.' After two years of life being on hold due to the pandemic, it's a feeling many of us can relate to. Catch Me If You Can was originally scheduled for Arena's 2020-2021 season.

When asked what it felt like to have audiences back at Arena, Smith was euphoric, "Absolutely thrilling. This is a live artform-we successfully pivoted online but live is where theater is. The beating heart of the audience echoes the beating hearts of the performers. Arena is truly roaring back."

Catch Me If You Can runs thru April 17th at Arena Stage - 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets please click here.

Photo: Nehal Joshi and Christian Thompson. Credit: Margot Schulman.

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