by Byron Woods
Frank Abagnale’s life story, vividly related in the jazzy Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can, beggars belief. A prodigy as an adolescent (albeit at check kiting and gaming various mechanisms in the American financial system), before age 18 he’d rung up well over $1 million dollars in multiple bank frauds. By 21, he'd established and lived under at least eight separate assumed identities, posing (and traveling across the world) as an airline pilot, teaching at Brigham Young University, managing interns as an ersatz doctor at a Georgia hospital, somehow passing the Louisiana bar exam and working in that state’s Attorney General’s office.
But that's not all. After his eventual capture and imprisonment, Abagnale started working for the FBI, instructing them on security vulnerabilities in the banking system. After his release, he set up his own consulting firm, advising banks and businesses on (what else?) fraud detection and avoidance. Some 40 years later, he’s a success and a millionaire several times over—legitimately, this time.
True, Abagnale and his chroniclers may have padded his felonious resume somewhat (in a manner at least potentially similar to his original modus operandi). Still, the 2002 Stephen Spielberg film with the same title, a Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks blockbuster which grossed over $350 million, proved that this was a life clearly meant for the silver screen. The musical stage adaptation of Catch Me ran six months on Broadway last season; if not a runaway smash, it still was a respectable showing, with a Tony and Drama Desk award for best leading performance. A national tour kicked off last month; its Raleigh stand this week is one of its earliest dates.
Out of the show's (literal) opening gate—somewhere at Miami International Airport, circa 1964—Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s propulsive score and Matthew Smedal’s sharp swing orchestra yank us onto the dance floor, through a series of original numbers reverently ripped from the school of jumping jive. Swing and jump blues aficionados have all the reasons they could possibly need to pony up for a ticket well before the end of the first act.
Which is a good thing, since the somewhat contrived, walk-down-memory-lane approach playwright Terrence McNally uses in his script gives the boyish, charming—and still adolescent—fugitive (Stephen Anthony) only one avenue of escape when he’s finally cornered by a G-man squad run by proto-nerd Carl Hanratty (Marritt David Janes): a chronological recap of his life of crime.
For this welterweight high-crime version of a Baron Münchhausen story, that calls for nothing less than turning the stage into a delusional—but certainly grand—television sound stage for a mythical all-singing, all-dancing ‘60s-era variety show extravaganza: The Frank Abagnale Jr. Show (featuring the Frank Abagnale Jr. Orchestra and Dancers, no less).
The formula works for other characters here as well. Mr. Janes kills with Hanratty’s delightfully unlikely gospel-tinged raver, “Don’t Break the Rules,” before a moody, film-noir change-up in “The Man Behind the Clues.” Caitlin Maloney, playing Frank’s mom, Paula, takes her spotlight turn in the torchy “Don’t Be a Stranger.”
But the show’s winning streak fizzles in the middle of the second act, when the score and the stagings turn sappy. Hanratty and Frank’s father (Dominic Fortuna) allegedly commiserate on their own hard-knocks childhoods in the unbelievable “Little Boy, Be a Man.” Against Bob Bonniol’s distracting video backdrop (complete with aurora borealis and a Technicolor sunrise), Frank and potential bride Brenda (Aubrey Mae Davis) murmur the usual romantic platitudes in “Seven Wonders.” A meeting with Brenda’s folks results in the dilatory “Our Family Tree,” before another stemwinder, Frank’s ludicrous summation of his life up to now, “Good Bye.”
Only Brenda’s desperate anthem “Fly, Fly Away,” eludes the boilerplate sentiments of the second act slump—despite an over-the-top staging against a backdrop and backup singers lifted from late Lawrence Welk. (I’ll bet that some of those dramatic notes Davis hurled against the back wall of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in this showstopper will take a crowbar to dislodge.)
David Rockwell’s set sells the orchestra but shortchanges most other scenes, and William Ivey Long’s period costumes fill out the kicky song-and-dancers.
During the first half, Catch Me flies high. But that telltale loss of altitude in the second act brings this production in for a bumpy landing.