The story of infamous conman Frank Abagnale Jr’s criminal antics in his teen years in the 1960s is astonishing. Chased by the FBI, he was caught after cashing around US$2.5 million in bad cheques and convincingly impersonating a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, among other assumed occupations. Today, he’s a US security consultant who runs the FBI’s Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) Academy.
Abagnale Jr told his unbelievable tale in a 1980 book, Catch me if you can, which was co-written by Stan Redding and was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film of the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. And then in 2011, a musical version of Catch me if you can landed on Broadway, with a book by Terrence McNally and a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It earned four Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, but closed after a five-month run. Last week, a new production of Catch me if you can opened at Hayes Theatre Co, directed and choreographed by Cameron Mitchell.
On stage, Catch me if you can begins with the arrest of Abagnale Jr (Jake Speer) by FBI agents at a Florida airport. Before he’s taken in, he asks FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tim Draxl), who has been on his trail for several years, to let him tell his story. We’re then taken back in time and into Abagnale Jr’s family home in New York, where he lives with his father, Frank Sr (Simon Burke), and his mother, Paula (Penny Martin). We learn of the dubious advice his father impresses upon him, we learn how convincing other kids at his school that he was a substitute teacher sparked a career in criminal impersonation, and we learn how far and wide those pursuits expanded. It’s all appropriately bundled up in a vibrant, highly theatrical package, evoking the look and feel of a 1960s US variety TV show.
The source material is, by no means, brilliant. However, with Catch me if you can, Mitchell has delivered an experience that is electric, polished and highly entertaining. It’s another example of a presentation that successfully creates a big production feel in a small space. Mitchell keeps things moving at a great pace and his terrific choreography shows deference to the time (and variety show genre) and is well executed by the 13-strong cast.
Set Designer Kelsey Lee’s glitzy proscenium arch helps to establish the variety TV show feel from the outset. In large part, the set is made up of a series of mirrored panels – an effective means of keeping front and centre the notion that appearance is everything. Christine Mutton’s colourful costumes deftly reflect the era. From the pale blue Pan Am female flight attendant uniforms to shapeless shift and drop waist dresses, there is excellent attention to detail. Meanwhile, Jasmine Rizk uses moving and coloured lights to tremendous effect to not only complement the sets and the costumes, but to add to the energy and vivacity of this production.
Musical Director Anthony Cutrupi leads a tight band (including bass player Amanda Jenkins, drummer Tom McCracken, Michael Napoli on guitar, and reed player Abi McCunn). Their performance of the score is rich and loud, suggesting they’re a much bigger group than we’ve been led to believe. From the opening number, ‘Live in Living Colour’, we’re treated to one of the best performances to date from any group of musicians to have played the venue.
Leading proceedings as the confident and charismatic impostor, Speer makes a memorable debut at the Hayes. His portrayal of Abagnale Jr perfectly mixes youthful naivety with cunning and creativity and, vocally, his tenor is up to the task. Draxl is in top form as the assiduous and serious FBI agent who ultimately prevails. Because of his crooning credentials, his performance of Shaiman’s and Wittman’s songs seems effortless. A particular highlight is Act I’s admonitory refrain ‘Don’t break the rules’.
Jessica Di Costa is well cast as Brenda Strong, the kind and conscientious young woman to whom Abagnale Jr becomes engaged. Burke is an asset as the sly and silver-tongued Abagnale Sr, who teaches his son at an early age the need to look the part to be the part. Martin impresses as Paula Abagnale, the mother who cares for her son but longs for another life (and love), but she truly shines while demonstrating her comedic talents as Brenda’s convivial and overly-enthusiastic southern mother, Carol.
Thanks to Mitchell’s direction and choreography, Cutrupi’s adept players and a fine cast, Catch me if you can at Hayes Theatre Co makes for wonderful theatrical entertainment. And never has crime looked so colourful.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point)
Dates: Playing now until Sunday 18 August 2019
Times: Tues-Sat 7:30pm, Sat & Sun 2pm
Prices: $69-74 Adult, $64-69 Concession
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337