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Theater Review: 'Catch Me If You Can'

"Catch Me If You Can," playing at The Players Theatre, is a portrait of the con man as a young artist.

The cast of "Catch Me If You Can." Courtesy photo.
The cast of "Catch Me If You Can." Courtesy photo.
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Hey kids. Keep this to yourself, but crime actually pays if you do it right. That’s the, uh, moral behind the Players’ current production, “Catch Me If You Can,” the Broadway musical based on the Stephen Spielberg movie based on the book by Frank W. Abagnale Jr. (Subtitled “the real life of a true fake.”)

In case you missed the movie and didn’t read the book. Frank Abagnale was a con man. That’s like saying Picasso dabbled in painting. Abagnale was an artist. But you could also call him a hacker.

Abagnale was a hacker before that word was known outside of the innermost nerd circles. He could look at any system and spot its exploitable vulnerabilities at a glance. You and I see confusing numbers at the end of a form. It’s gibberish to us. He sees a way to cheat banks out of thousands of dollars. Instantly. He was deft at social engineering (the art of weaseling information out of people) and obtaining entrée into places he doesn’t belong. This human chameleon also successfully faked being a pilot and a doctor. (Out of a total of eight identities. So he claims.) He forged a Harvard Law degree but actually passed the California bar exam. By studying for two weeks. Abagnale got away with it all until 1969. In real life, the cuffs went on at Orly airport. In this fictionalized musical, a Javert-like FBI agent eventually nabs Abagnale at Miami airport — and that’s the springboard for the musical. The con artist shouts, “I think I ought to tell these people what’s going on here!” The agent protests, “This is not your show!” But of course it is — and the ride begins.

Another crime-is-fun musical, right? Not exactly. If you’re thinking “Chicago” or “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” think again. This ride’s more like a 1960s variety show, with lots of high-kicking leggy dancers and a score that veers from Sinatra-esque lounge lizard to Motown. Glitzy 60s-era set design (Ryan Mueller) and costumes (Kenneth Mooney) paint the picture. Shamelessly sexy choreography (Dewayne Barrett) and lush musical direction (Rebecca Heintz) set the mood — and the songs are all played by a living breathing orchestra. Throughout the big production numbers, we get into the nitty-gritty of Frank’s relationships.

Frank’s bond with his father (Mark Athridge) is tight. Dad’s no crook, but a corner-cutting entrepreneur. The IRS makes an example out of him and systematically ruins him — the death of a thousand cuts that stretches out for years. But his bond with Mom (Jolie Rand) is weak. She’s a French knockout that his father fell for while stationed in W.W. II. He brought her home and married her; she dumped him when the going got rough. Frank forms a strong connection with the FBI agent on his trail — who eventually becomes a surrogate father figure. Frank falls in love with a sweet young thing from Louisiana. (Holly Rizzo). She accepts his marriage proposal; he decides to leave his life of crime. His engagement notice uses his last known identity and tips Hanratty off. Going legit is the start of his downfall.  

James Alexander Hyde portrays this smiling grifter. (He’s a dead ringer for Neil Patrick Harris, with the same kind of mojo.) His charming portrayal gets you rooting for Frank to get away with it. He’s character’s no sociopath, just a very smart kid with free access to the “Mad Men” era’s materialist toy store of big stuff for Baby Boomers. (Victimless rip-offs only. At least in the musical.) Hyde seems destined to play this role. (Not that I’m saying anything.) Agent Carl Hanratty (Kenneth Rapczynski) starts off as a relentless workaholic who makes his FBI squad work on Christmas. He ends up with a kind of panache — and you wind up rooting for him to catch Frank. Fine performances from the leads and the supporting cast as well.

Along with choreography, the multi-talented Barrett also directs — a perfect one-man combo in a musical where drama and dance are inseparable. He’s got the chops to keep up with the relentless pace and still keep everything clear. And he’s got good (if demanding) material to work with. Terrence McNally (of “The Full Monty” fame) wrote the script, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the “Hairspray” guys) did the lyrics and score. A-list talent created this ride. It takes A-list talent to pull it off. Barrett has it and did.

As to the ride itself? Roughly speaking, the musical’s structure is a rip-off of “The Fugitive,” which in turn was a rip-off of “Les Miserables.” It bounces us back and forth between pursuer and pursued. Frank’s world is in living color — a perfect excuse for chorus girls in Mondrian-print miniskirts and lots of pricey glitz. It’s the “Playboy philosophy” in action, folks. Materialism, style before substance and snappy clothes! Hanratty’s ratty world, on the other hand, is in black-and-white, like a crappy old TV. But he’s a schlub who morphs into a mensch. He starts to care about his prey, even like him. So, what starts off as “The Fugitive” ends up as a buddy picture. Unlike the IRS, Hanratty doesn’t want to destroy his quarry. He wants to give him a job. Everybody’s favorite con artist accepts the offer.

Cute. I suspect the real life story is darker. But this is a divertissement, not a probing study of the decline of Western Civilization. It’s just a ride — a flight of fantasy. Strap in, obey the no smoking sign, and enjoy it. It’s fun from start to finish. As to that job offer …

Frank gets off with a reduced sentence and comes to work in the FBI, fighting the good fight against scam artists like he used to be. It takes a thief to catch a thief, right? And he’s the best there is. In the emerging brave new world of credit cards and computers, a guy like Hanratty needs a guy like him. This deal happens in the musical and happened in real life too. Frank Abagnale Jr. paved the way for Kevin Mitnick and every other ex-outlaw hacker who put on a white hat and joined the law.

So there you have it, kids. Crime actually pays, if you’re as smart as this guy and the FBI hires you after you get caught and they make a book, a movie and a musical of your life. It does happen…

But a sensible major with a sure career track is probably your best bet. For helpful tips, keep up with The Business Observer.

We want to keep you out of jail.



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