Moonlight Stages closes its Summer 2014 season with the Southern California Regional Premiere of Catch Me If You Can, and if the musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s popular 2002 biopic “underperformed” during its less than half-a-year on Broadway, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out why it wasn’t a humungous smash from the sensational goings-on down in Vista under the inspired direction of Larry Raben.
Like the Spielberg hit, Catch Me If You Can The Musical once again has charismatic con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. up to his old tricks, but this time it’s “Live In Living Color” with one catchy tune after another, plenty of pizzazzy production numbers, a castful of scene-stealing performances … and a surprising dollop of heart thrown in for good measure.
Moviegoers will recall Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance as real-life con artist Frank Jr., who while still a teenager executed millions of dollars worth of cons by convincing folks he was (among other things) a PanAm pilot, an ER doctor, and a full-fledged attorney—and by forging checks to the tune of millions.
Tom Hanks was Di Caprio’s screen partner, costarring as FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty, whose Inspector Javert-like pursuit of Frank Jr. inspired Abagnale’s autobiography’s catchy title, as well as that of Spielberg’s movie and its 2011 Broadway adaptation, with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Tony winners for Hairspray) and book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally.
McNally opens Catch Me The Musical with Frank Jr.’s capture at Miami International Airport, Frank (Jacob Haren) promising Carl (Josh Adamson) to confess all of his crimes on condition that the FBI agent allow him to tell his story “Live In Living Color,” in other words like one of those 1960s peacock-hued variety shows from the days when black-and-white was still the norm for much of America.
And before you can say “The following program is brought to you in living color,” the NBC peacock has spread its tail feathers across the entire upstage wall, and Frank Jr.’s life-story-as-TV-variety-special has begun.
We then flash back to Frank’s life as a New Rochelle teen living with his Italian-American dad Frank Sr. (Robert Neary) and Parisian mom Paula (Tracy Lore) but dreaming of a life beyond suburban New York.
When his family’s financial woes rule out a return to private school, Frank Jr. wears his old uniform it to his new public high school, gets taken for a member of the faculty, and poses successfully as a substitute French teacher—for a few days at least.
Then, when his parents’ decision to divorce means choosing between Dad and Mom, Frank Jr. makes up his mind to hit the road and live in “Someone Else’s Skin.”
Before long, Frank has not only cashed fake check after fake check (to the tune of millions), he has faked himself a PanAm ID and is soon—believe it or not—co-piloting transatlantic flights and living life as a member of the fabled “Jet Set.”
Meanwhile, all those forged checks have set FBI agent Carl on Frank’s trail in attempt to discover the identity of “The Man Behind The Clues.”
With a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story as fascinating as Frank Jr.’s and a smash Spielberg movie which generated over $350 million at the box office, it’s no wonder that Broadway beckoned.
Unfortunately, despite a can’t-miss storyline, a terrific set of songs by Shaiman and Wittman, direction by three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien, choreography by now two-time Tony winner Jerry Mitchell, and a cast headed by Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz (who won the Tony for playing Carl), Catch Me If You Can lasted only just over 200 performances including previews.
Still, Catch Me If You Can scored three additional Tony nominations—for Best Musical, Best Sound Design, and Best Orchestrations—reason enough for it to have a post-Broadway afterlife, and had Raben’s revised vision complemented by Karl Warden’s sensational choreography been on the Great White Way, who knows how long it might have lasted at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre?
The musical’s truth-as-TV-special conceit proves inspired. There’s hardly a song that doesn’t get its own production number, whether it’s Frank Jr. being backed up by a bevy of stunning stewardesses in “Jet Set” or by a chorus line of glamazon nurses in “Doctor’s Orders,” or Carl and back-up FBI agents male and female kicking up their heels to “Don’t Break The Rules.”
This conceit also gives The Music And Theatre Company’s uncredited costume designer permission to dress those stewardesses and nurses and female agents in leg-revealing uniforms that a more realistic staging would never allow.
Even the showstopping Frank Sr./Frank Jr. duet “Butter Outta Cream” features leggy lovelies … and more feather fans than any show since La Cage Aux Folles.
Last but not least, there’s Catch Me If You Can’s surprisingly touching love story between Frank Jr. and nurse Brenda Strong (Heather Lundstedt), a romance that allows us to discover in Frank the soul of a romantic.
Of course, none of this would work nearly as well as it does without a pair of stellar lead performances, and in SoCal child performer-turned-adult star Haren and Aussie hunk Adamson vanishing inside Hanraty’s nerdy Midwest skin, Moonlight’s Catch Me If You Can gets those spectacular star turns, and then some.
Unrecognizable as the same leading man who brought Fanny Brice’s Nicky Arnstein to life in 3-D Theatricals’ Funny Girl, a mustachioed, bespectacled, nerdified Adamson proves that even dweebs can dazzle when performed with the “Live In Living Color” pizzazz Adamson brings to the role.
As for Haren, the charismatic UC Irvine grad’s biggest role since his Scenie-winning turn as Jack in UCI’s Into The Woods four years ago proves him the very definition of triple-threat, giving Frank Jr. a heady combination of boyish charm, power pipes, and dancepertise.
Haren’s eleventh-hour “Good-Bye” will have you wiping away tears as you cheer and when he and Adamson close the show with Frank Jr. and Carl’s powerhouse “Stuck Together,” the duo bring Catch Me If You Can to a finish that inspires whoops and hollers and a standing ovation.
The dynamic Neary scores as Frank Abagnale, Sr., whose advice to make “Butter Outta Cream” propels Frank Jr.’s journey. Lore is comme toujours simply divine, this time with a sexy French accent and voluptuous Gallic charm, her duet with Neary of “Don’t Be A Stranger” as silky and sexy as duets get.
Doing standout work too are the ever wondrous Karla J. Franko and the always spendid Ralph Johnson as Brenda’s parents Carol and Roger (and in multiple cameo roles as well).
As for Brenda herself, the luminous Lundstedt follows her recent star turn as Marion in Glendale Centre Theatre’s The Music Man with yet another captivating performance, giving Brenda a winning girl-next-door-ness that makes it clear why Frank Jr. picks her over her more statuesque fellow nurses. As for the breathtaking “Fly, Fly Away,” Lundstedt belts it crystal clear all the way up to the Moonlight Amphitheatre moon.
Ensemble members Bryan Banville, Katie Whalley Banville, Eric Stanton Betts, Caitlyn Calfas (Nurse), Liz Daniels, Mary Joe Duggan, Jake DuPree, Jessica Ernest (Nurse), Johnny Fletcher (Agent Branton), Melissa Glagow, Siri Hafsø, Danny Hansen, Kyle Hawk, Eric Hellmers (Agent Cod), Matthew Malecki (Johnny Dollar), Morgan McGeehan, Kristina Miller (Cheryl Ann), Madison Mitchell (Nurse), and Ala Tiatia are Broadway-caliber triple-threats each and every one, with special snaps to the statuesque Ernest’s rafters-high vocalizing in “Doctor’s Orders,” and to Fletcher, Hellmers, and Malecki’s terrific trio of FBI agents.
Director Raben once again proves himself one of SoCal’s finest and most imaginative show helmers, with choreographer Warden (of Catch Me If You Can’s pre-Broadway Seattle World Premiere) making sure that every single high-energy, high-kicking dance number tops the one before it. (If only more production stills revealed just how sensational they are!)
Moonlight Stages staple Elan McMahan once again impresses as music director, leading a topflight pit orchestra that makes it clear why Shaiman and Larry Blank’s orchestrations got their own pair of Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations.
The Music And Theatre Company’s rented set may lack the electrifying LED projections that made Catch Me If You Can’s National Tour such a visual feast, but they still capture the look of a ’60s TV variety hour.
Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design is suitably flashy and Chris Luessmann’s sound design crisp and clear.
Costumes are coordinated and executed by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone. Bonnie Durben is properties master. Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Sue Givens assistant stage manager.
If last month’s My Fair Lady revival revealed Broadway at its most classic, Catch Me If You Can gives us today’s Broadway at its most exciting.
Moonlight Stage Productions’ sensational 2014 summer season closer deserves to be caught … that is, of course, if you can.
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
September 13, 2014
Photos: Ken Jacques