Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 1, 2013

Catch Me If You Can

The Bushnell Broadway Series, Hartford, CT
through June 2, 2013
by Kait Rankins

Catch Me If You Can is based on the true story of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., who in the 1960s stole nearly two million dollars in bad checks and got away with it by impersonating a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer -- all before he was 21 years old. After serving time in prison, Abagnale has since gone on to work with the FBI ever since, using his expertise to prevent crimes like his own. With his deeds immortalized in a memoir and then a Steven Spielberg film of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, it at first seems like an unusual topic for a musical. However, the Frank Jr. of the musical possesses a charm and flash not unlike Harold Hill, musical theatre's most legendary con artist from The Music Man. Under Frank Jr.'s leadership, it becomes difficult to imagine this story in any other medium: After being cornered by the FBI in an airport, Frank Jr. insists on telling the story of his crimes "his way" -- and it turns out his way is to break the fourth wall, bring on the dancing girls and flashy colors, and present his life as if he's host of his own television show.

There's no mystery in what's going to happen: the show starts at the ending scene and is then told through flashbacks, and the program includes a short biography of the real Frank W. Abagnale Jr. that details events set after the show's end. Instead, we know what happened -- but like FBI Agent Carl Hanratty, who has doggedly pursued Abagnale, we want to know how. How, exactly, does a teenager go from being in high school to being on the run? How does a teenager commit grand larceny? Most pressingly, how in the world does a teenager pass himself off as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer?

With songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Smash) and a book by Terrence McNally (The Full Monty, Ragtime), with choreography by Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, Legally Blonde) and directed by Jack O'Brien (Hairspray, The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Catch Me If You Can is clever and stylish. Despite wildly different subjects and settings, it inevitably draws comparisons to Hairspray, another Shaiman/Wittman musical set in the 1960s. While the songs are not as infectious or instantly memorable as Hairspray, the music is mostly catchy and the lyrics are consistently clever. Highlights include FBI agent Carl Hanratty's showstopping dance number "Don't Break the Rules" and Frank Jr.'s emotional "Good-bye" when he finds himself cornered with no way out. Some of the songs are forgettable, which probably led to its lack of success on Broadway, but it's McNally's book that saves the day. Though at times strangely paced, the dialogue is clever and quick, all culminating in an emotional ending scene that strips away the flash and style and showcases two actors at their very best.

Catch Me If You Can might border on being too flashy, but relies completely on the likeability of its two lead actors. Stephen Anthony plays Frank Jr. with a geeky, childlike charm. It is impossible to forget that he's just a kid, treating this as a game. He doesn't mean to hurt anyone -- in fact, it doesn't seem like he could hurt anyone. He gleefully tells the story of his crimes, appears and disappears from the stage by slipping in and out of crowds and making use of misdirection, and makes us all forget that what he's doing is horribly illegal. It's easy to want him to succeed. As the walls close in on him, Anthony showcases Frank Jr.'s youth and vulnerability: he goes from expert showman to frightened child with complete believability.

As Agent Carl Hanratty, Merritt David Janes is middle-aged and weary, a dogged lawman who takes the job more seriously than his colleagues. He is incredibly "uncool" by his own admission, lacks the flair of Frank Jr., but has a naturally father-like attitude that slowly starts to reveal itself throughout the story. As these two characters connect, beginning with the end of Act I, we find ourselves less with a Jean Valjean-versus-Javert situation (good-hearted criminal chased by uptight lawman with no pity) and more with two people desperately seeking family and finding it in the most unlikely place.

Strip away all of the flash and color, and this relationship is ultimately the heart of the show and what makes it unique. Anthony and Janes nail their performances and their chemistry, giving the audience two characters to root for and a story to care about.