DALLAS Given the real life game of cat-and-mouse that Frank Abagnale, Jr., found himself in with the FBI as a teenager in the '60s, it's fitting that the concept for the musical version of his story, Catch Me If You Can, is that it comes to life as a '60s variety show. An onstage orchestra set up, bandstand style on a platform, plays music that recalls a lounge or supper club where perhaps any member of the Rat Pack might have performed.
If it were a game show, it might even have been To Tell the Truth.
That's something the real Abagnale didn't do, because he had a special gift for not telling the truth and pretending to be people with occupations (airline pilot, doctor, lawyer) that belie his youth. His story was first told in his own book, and then in a Steven Spielberg movie, with Leonard DiCaprio playing Abagnale. The musical, by the Hairspray duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and with a book by Terrence McNally, debuted on Broadway in 2011. The tour is at Dallas Summer Musicals now, kicking of their 2013 season.
With the exception of the song Fly, Fly Away, there isn't a number in the show that rivals the earworms that made their musical version of Hairspray such a smash but Catch Me is a more sophisticated work.
Directed by Jack O'Brien, with choreography by Jerry Mitchell, the story begins with Frank (Stephen Anthony) finally being caught by his chasers, notably FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Merritt David Janes), at the age of 21. It gives our hero a chance to retell his story song-and-dance style, setting up a meta-theatrical conceit that is smartly carried throughout the musical.
The important keys to playing a character who was so effortlessly able to con people as a teenager are charisma and confidence, and Anthony has them in spades; he also hits the big, house-filling notes on his 11 o'clock number, Goodbye. As Hanratty, Janes is pretty beige, which works for the character. He's leading an obsessive search for a criminal, but you also get the feeling that he's more than a little jealous of Frank, especially after meeting him. Another actor who doesn't stand out is Dominic Fortuna as Frank's father, and that doesn't work as well.
Aubrey Mae Davis plays Brenda, the nurse who gets Frank to think about seriously changing his ways. She infuses that aforementioned number Fly, Fly Away with such outward emotion and audible tears that it threatens the song's vocal power; it's on the melodramatic side.
William Ivey Long's costumes are fantastic, and you couldn't mention David Rockwell's scenic design without its key element, the "video system and content design" by Bob Bonniol. On a large screen in the background, animations and digital projects add depth and character to the settings, from looking up from below at skyscrapers to a long hospital hallway.
Then, as Frank says in Goodbye, the spotlight man turns off the light and the show is done. We know that it wasn't over for the real Abagnale, who served five years of jail time and then worked for the FBI for 37 years. But for those five, breathless years, his feat of conning everyone made for a story that proves that there's something to the ol' saying that truth is stranger than fiction. This truth just happens to resemble good fiction; and with the musical, this team has figured out a way to make the story their own.