Frank Abagnale Jr.’s story is one of thinly constructed veneers, of mistaken identities, of running and running and never quite getting anywhere. He was a seasoned con man by his early 20s, successfully posing as a Pan Am pilot, a pediatrician and an attorney before the FBI caught him in 1969. Abagnale’s story is also an endlessly fascinating one – it seems impossible that he could have evaded capture for so long – and he detailed it himself in the 1980 book “Catch Me If You Can,” which was later turned into a 2002 Steven Spielberg film.
Abagnale has since admitted that large swaths of the book were exaggerated for dramatic impact, and that his co-writer Stan Redding was more concerned with constructing a compelling narrative than getting all the facts straight. That seems perfectly appropriate.
The musical adaptation of Abagnale’s memoir continues the charade, and it’s presented in the style of a glitzy, splashy TV variety show, with Abagnale serving as our too-polished, ever-smirking host. That clever framework guarantees that, much like in Frank’s own life, everyone here is playing a part, everything’s a backdrop and nothing is quite accurate.
Spokane Civic Theatre kicked off its newest season Friday night with a big, shiny production of “Catch Me If You Can,” effervescently directed by Keith Dixon. The show, written by Terrence McNally, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, begins as a clever, fourth-wall-demolishing lark and ends on a note so warm and cuddly (a bit too warm and cuddly, if you ask me) that the opening night audience was audibly aww’ing. It’s a fun, engaging show, but like Abagnale’s own journey, it’s all over the place.
Frank, played in the Civic production by Cody Bray, gets his first dose of a seemingly perfect facade unexpectedly cracking when his father (Chet Gilmore) and mother (Ingrid LaVoie) get a divorce and start battling over custody. Having learned the basics of grifting from his pop, Frank runs away from home and begins his much-mythologized con streak, forging checks, globetrotting and bedding beautiful women.
All the while, newly divorced FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Michael Hynes) is on his trail, unaware both of Frank’s real identity and his age until years into the chase. Abagnale possesses the same doggedness and tenacity that drives Hanratty’s own investigation, and it’s clear Hanratty has thrown himself into the case both because he wants to steer Frank right and because he has nobody to go home to.
Hanratty actually takes over the narrative reins in the show’s second act, and it’s appropriately the more somber half. It’s also the point when Frank falls in love with Brenda (Amber Fiedler), the youngest nurse at the hospital where he’s posing as a Harvard-educated doctor. Bray and Fiedler generate genuine warmth, and their performances slyly convey the moral gray area of Frank and Brenda’s no-doubt doomed relationship.
The tunes in “Catch Me If You Can” are written in splashy big band style, and in true Lawrence Welk fashion, music director Henry McNulty and his orchestra are in full view, perched on a platform above the stage. It’s a nifty stylistic touch. “Doctor’s Orders” channels Dusty Springfield’s blend of soul and pop; “Don’t Be a Stranger” is a slinky, melancholy duet reminiscent of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s collaborations. Hynes’ breathless performance of “Don’t Break the Rules” is also a highlight, as is Fiedler’s great rendition of the Wall of Sound-style love ballad “Fly, Fly Away.”
But at the heart of “Catch Me If You Can” is Frank Abagnale, the consummate showman and snake oil salesman. Bray is captivating in a role that’s deceptively tricky: Like a TV host on a live feed, his charm can never flag, even when things are crumbling around him. But there’s a vulnerability right beneath the camera-ready gloss, and Bray knows when to let us glimpse it.
Abagnale’s story appeals to us, I think, because he was as aimless and confused as all young men, but he was also too smart and too resourceful for his own good. There’s something deeply sad about a guy who goes chasing after another life – any other life, really – because his own isn’t fulfilling enough. But there’s also something alluring about Abagnale’s fugitive lifestyle: We’d all like to have a superhero alter ego, but few of us are bold enough to change into another costume.
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