Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi gives its audiences the best big-scale musical I’ve seen at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center in their sensationally entertaining mid-sized staging of Broadway’s 2011 Best Musical Tony nominee Catch Me If You Can, a production that requires no allowances to be made “for community theater.” This is topnotch work from start to finish, and a production any professional theater would be proud to call its own.
Like the hit 2002 Steven Spielberg biopic on which it is based, Catch Me If You Can The Musical has charismatic con man hero Frank Abagnale, Jr. up to his old tricks again, 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, co-starring as FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty, whose Inspector Javert-like pursuit of Frank inspired Abagnale’s autobiography’s catchy title, as well as that of Spielberg’s movie and its 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’s capture at Miami International Airport, Frank (Trevor Shor) promising Carl (Randle Rankin) 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,” Frank Jr.’s life-story-as-TV-variety-special has begun with a flashback to Frank’s life as a New Rochelle teen living with his Italian-American dad Frank Sr. (Ken Campbell) and Parisian mom Paula (Aileen-Marie Scott) 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.”
It takes till Act Two for Catch Me If You Can to introduce its love story between Frank Jr. and nurse Brenda Strong (Courtney Daniels), but when it does, it proves surprisingly touching, giving us a chance to discover in Frank the soul of a romantic.
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 Jerry Mitchell (who more recently won his second Tony, for Kinky Boots), 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 Simi Valley audiences can be thankful for that!
The creative team’s truth-as-TV-special conceit proves inspired. There’s hardly a song that doesn’t get its own production numbers, whether it’s Frank Jr. being backed up by a bevy of stunning stewardesses in “Jet Set” or by a chorus line of glamorous nurses in “Doctor’s Orders,” or Carl and his back-up FBI agents kicking up their heels to “Don’t Make The Rules.” This conceit also gives costume designer Cynthia Caldwell permission to dress stewardesses and nurses in leg-revealing uniforms that a more realistic staging would never allow.
And wow, these are some exciting production numbers, with choreographer Becky Castells not only doing her best work so far but making sure to never once “dumb down” her dance moves, challenging her young, triple-threat ensemble every step of the way … and rewarding audiences with one cheer-worthy song-and-dance showcase after another.
Director David Daniels does all-around bang-up work, beginning with the performances he has inspired from his duo of leading men.
Shor’s deliciously campy work in last year’s World Premiere musical The Max Factor Factor makes his swoon-worthy romantic lead star turn in Catch Me If You Can one of the year’s most rewarding surprises. Not only does Shor have the requisite boyish charm to endear Frank Jr. to audiences from his first entrance and make us root for the young con man from the get-go, he makes each and every Shaiman-Wittman song he sings a showstopper, in particularly an eleventh-hour “Good-Bye” that will have you wiping away tears as you cheer. In addition, the show’s climactic scene reveals an actor of real depth, and by the way, this man can dance up a storm!
As for Frank Jr.’s nemesis, if FBI agent Hanratty leads a black-and-white life compared to his prey’s, Rankin’s fine performance is both “Live In Living Color” and a showcase for the next best thing to having Sinatra up onstage selling both uptempo songs and ballads with the best of Ol’ Blue Eyes, from the jazzy “Don’t Break The Rules” to the bluesy “The Man Inside The Clues” to “Strange But True,” the Carl-Frank Jr. duet that brings Catch Me If You Can to its cheer-inspiring finish.
Together, Shor and Rankin keep us rooting both for Carl to catch Frank and for Frank to keep escaping from Carl’s grasp, no mean trick that.
Daniels gives Brenda just the right girl-next-door quality, making it clear why Frank Jr. picks her over her more statuesque fellow nurses, and when she belts “Fly, Fly Away“ all the way up to the back row of the balcony, you can be glad indeed that the Simi Valley native is at last making her SVPAC debut.
Campbell give us a dynamic, deeply felt Frank Abagnale, Sr., whose advice to “make butter out of cream” propels Frank Jr.’s journey, while Scott shows off her trademark power pipes as Paula, duetting “Don’t Be A Stranger” with Campbell to delightful effect.
Doing vivid work in multiple roles are John Dantona and Sharon Gibson (most notably as Brenda’s parents), Alina Maris score points for sexy as call girl Cheryl Ann, and Kevin Ellis, Augusto Guardado, Isaiah Tristan, and Ty West make for a colorful quartet of FBI agents, most of the above also forming part of Catch Me If You Can’s stellar song-and-dance ensemble, completed by Sommer Branham, Lorraine Brusseau, dance captain Tori Cusack, Autumn Ericson, Alina Maris, Amanda Mead-Tatum, James Matthew Johnson, and Gabriella Marie Roberts, triple-threats each and every one. (Unfortunately, not everyone gets a program bio, and Guardado, though bioed, is omitted from the cast list.)
P. Matthew Park serves as music director, leading the topflight onstage band, the best I’ve heard/seen in a Simi Valley production, making it clear why Shaiman and Larry Blank’s orchestrations got their own pair of Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations.
Catch Me If You Can’s TV-variety-show conceit allows director Daniels and his fellow scenic designer Seth Kamenow to come up with quite possibly the Cultural Arts Center’s most professional-looking set to date, replicating the look of a ’60s TV variety hour quite niftily indeed, with projection designer Evan Acosta, props designer Brenda Miller, and lighting designer Sasha A. Venola sharing credit for the production’s spiffy period look. Sound designer Chris Grote’s mix of amped voices and instruments came off without a hitch at the performance reviewed.
Catch Me If You Can is produced by Jan Glasband. Kamenow is production manager.
In a year ahead filled mostly with endlessly revived “audience favorites,” Catch Me If You Can provides an invigorating breath of fresh air up Simi Valley way, as will the 2015 closer (and equally entertaining recent Broadway hit) The Addams Family. “Live In Living Color” has rarely looked or sounded this good!
Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley. Through April 5. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00, Reservations: 805 583-7900
March 15, 2015