Theatre Review: Catch Me If You Can

My regular readers know that I’m usually a bit skeptical about transferring a story from one medium, such as a novel or movie, to the stage. In the past, I did my research by reading the novel or watching the movie, only to be frustrated at the decisions that the playwright made to condense several hundred pages into 90 to 120 minutes of stage time. Worse, yet, is when the production team add contemporary issues that were not in the original work to update the characters or plots to conform to our current interets.

My regular readers know that I am usually a bit skeptical about the Disneyfacation of theatre through Disney’s encroachment on Broadway. While I have not actually attended any Broadway play or musical produced by Disney, I have a seen a few productions in regional theatres. Disney just seems to be saying ”Hey, look we have gobs of money for special effects and one more blockbluster song and dance numbers which has little to do with the plot, but boy do we pack in the audiences (of folks who would not usually go to the theatre except they really liked Disney World)”

Must be careful, least I start to sound like Abe in The Marvelous Miss Mazel when he writes theatre reviews for the Village Voice… or, maybe I’s like to sound like Abe… Not making many friends that way.

So, when we purchased our season tickets to Arena Stage for 2021-22 and saw that they would be producing Disney’s ”Catch Me If You Can” based on a 2002 movie, based on a 1980 memoir by Frank Abagnale, Jr. I thought, ”Oh, no! A musical based on a movie and developed by Disney”. Double curse.

On the other hand, I recall when I was in high school, and everyone was striving to be #1, best you can be, give it your all, your special, I responded to a friend ”I prefer to start with low expectations, because then I’m usually pleasantly surprised that the results are much better than I dreaded.”

The day started with a pleasant surprise, as we headed to our secret, block of free parking in D.C. (not telling you where), we noticed that it was Cherry Blossom Festival around the Tidal Basin and the trees were in bloom. We scrapped our plans to spend an hour or so before lunch in a museum, and did the promenade past the Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials on our way to Hank’s Oyster Bar across the street from Arena Stage. Nothing like a stroll and lunch to put someone in a good mood for a musical.

Our seats were in the center of the fist row, in the Fitchlander Stage, which is in the round, thus having four front rows. The performers would be as close as four feet and no more than 40 feet from us all afternoon. Better not let that Guiness with my fish and chips get me dozy.

From the opening number, “Live In Living Color”, I was wide awake and would have no time to worry about napping for the next two hours. The musical starts with Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Christian Thompson) being arrested at the airport by FBI agent, Carl Hanratty (Nehal Joshi). Frank asks for a moment to tell his story. With the FBI guns drawn, and the other patrons at the airport hiding behind their luggage, the stage suddenly shift from a frozen moment to a going-to-a-go-go dance number, with the patrons dropping their coats to reveal Piet Mondrian style shirts and dressing in big blocks of red, yellow, blue, and white shoes and boots. That is where being four feet away from two couples dancing in tight moves gets the blood flowing. Those customs were just outdone with each subsequent ensemble dance number. Sooooooo ’60s! Sooooooo hip!

And, the numbers came, tumbling one after another, with just enough time to say ”Oooooh! Ahhhhhh!” to another delightful pairing of his-and-hers outfits to match each scene (the best were the dollar-bill jackets and flared dresses for the second number ”Fifty Checks”, which gives the basis for Frank, Jr’s two-year spending spree as he figures out how to pass bad checks into the million’s in debt, which is why the FBI starts to follow him). Costume designer, Alejo Vietti, gives us the eye-candy that has more substance than just a treat. He has matched each outfit to the events which unfold to tell this story.

In a more subtle style, Alexander Dodge’s set, seems to be a minimalist background for the action, until the cast begins to move about what appears to be a blank slate. The stage opens with just a floor, decorated in game-show red and yellow patterns, with the usual four entrances at the corners of the stage, plus two stair wells descending at the side of the stage, an opening for the music director/conductor (Laura Berquist) to follow what is on stage and guide the orchestra below the stage. But, at key moments, lights embedded into the floor, and in marquee style rings overhead flash as if something from Las Vegas’ Neon Boneyard had suddenly come to life. Then up form the middle of the floor, an lift raises up a setting, maybe the family living room, a posh restaurant, and hotel room, to give us a setting for a bit of action and plot development.

Beyond the visuals, this show is all about building on the Great American Musical style standards through the 1950’s-60’s crooner style numbers Marc Shaiman has created (lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, book by Terrance McNally). If you like big-band to The Rat-Pack, you will be tapping your toes. And, the selection of music is where director, Molly Smith, has diverged from the 2009 Broadway production.

Backing up, in a conversation with a theatre friend, we had more skeptical premonitions of the show. “We saw a traveling production some years ago… Can’t remember a thing about it… He slept through it”. Hmmmm. Not sounding good. So what happened between that iteration and Arena Stage’s production, which I’m obvious gushing about?

In Molly Smith’s artistic director notes in the program, she explains her process for deciding which version of the musical to produce. The saying goes, movies are made on the cutting room floor. When filming a movie, say the 2002 version of Catch Me if You Can, the director shoots a lot more scenes than will fit into the allotted frame. This is why DVD’s and streaming service can give you four hour long “Director’s Cut’s” and ”Extended Version”. We can put those on pause to go to the bathroom. In parallel, when a stage play or musical is being developed, the creative team often generates more scenes and numbers than an audience can sit through. During pre-runs of the show, they try out different combinations until they believe they have a product that works and sells.

Molly Smith went back to read through various sequences of the musical, and actually selected an earlier version than the one which eventually opened and broadway, went on the road, and our friend’s spouse slept through. Arena Stage’s version included three numbers that were cut form the Broadway version. Given our enjoyment of this production, I could not select three routines to cut out without losing the momentum which this show needs to keep Frank, Jr. and detective Hanratty on the run.

I’m not giving away more of the plot. Let’s just say that it is between a coming-of-age, what-happens-to-the-son of self-absorbed parents who are more concerned with their positions and lifestyle than rearing a child, or a prodigal-son variation with the reunion of the son not being with his father, but a man who cares about him more than his father.

Don’t get too heavy, though. This is a musical.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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5 Responses to Theatre Review: Catch Me If You Can

  1. I love your reviews Oscar! You should be paid to write them.
    It makes me want to go out and look for regional theaters around me.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Ooooh. Staying away from seeking payment for something I do for enjoyment. Would not want to spoil the fun, nor have to tow the line of an editorial policy or politics. As a friend said once, “You paid for the ticket. You can say what you want”. With that in mind, I prefer to be encouraging and to highlight what I enjoyed about productions with caution about trashing something (too many egos to bruise unnecessarily, especially as anything can be found by anyone these days on the Internet). Do find some theatres our your way.

  2. You know, starting with low expectations is often the way to go. 😉

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