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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

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The "Catch Me If You Can" tour company.
The "Catch Me If You Can" tour company. (Photo: Carl Rosegg)

"Catch Me If You Can" is a high-flying, fun ride

I recently interviewed "Catch Me If You Can" cast member and Wisconsin native Travis Mitchell, who plays FBI Agent Branton in the musical version of the 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks movie.

I asked him how he thought the addition of Broadway-caliber musical numbers enhanced the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a young con man who passes himself off as a doctor, pilot and lawyer and counterfeits checks to the tune of millions of stolen dollars.

"It really gives you a big sense of that time period, the ‘60s music," Mitchell said. "It has a very glamorous feel to it, which I think is really exciting."

‘Glamorous’ is definitely the right adjective. The music is big, the costumes are flashy and the dancing is arresting in this lavish production that runs at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, April 28.

But glamor is only half of Abagnale’s story. The other half is despair. And the musical version of "Catch Me If You Can" captures that well – maybe even better than the movie did.

Abagnale begins his life of deception and crime after he discovers his mother’s infidelity and a divorce and custody battle between his parents ensues. The 16-year-old’s family disintegrates and so does his identity. So he makes up a new one.

His father, an unapologetic semi-swindler under investigation by the IRS, always taught him to "make butter out of cream" – to do whatever it takes to get what’s coming to you. The musical is good at driving that point home and emphasizing that beneath the glitz and glamor of Abagnale’s high-flying lifestyle is a very scared, lost boy.

The name of the piece, after all, is something of a challenge - catch me if you can. The character of FBI Agent Carl Hanratty, who doggedly chases Abagnale throughout his forging career, represents all the pain – and just plain dullness – of ordinary life. Abagnale is trying to escape this pain and dullness, maybe more vigorously even than he is trying to escape Hanratty. But at the same time, he craves it. It's what he lost when his parents separated.

Actor Stephen Anthony adequately conveys the hollowness of Frank Abagnale, Jr. and is the strongest point in this production, along with Merritt David Janes as Agent Hanratty.

Anthony charms the audience with a boyish charisma, which is fitting, since the junior con man isn’t even out of his teens. He hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively – "Live in Living Color" shows the escapism he craves, "Someone Else’s Skin" is his lament for the life and family he thought he had, and perhaps his most powerful performance came late in the second act with "Good-Bye."

It is this fraught and powerful solo that truly sums up the character, and Anthony plays it exactly right – desperate, scared, cornered and so very, very beaten.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is an examination of the pathos in Abagnale’s character – "Catch Me If You Can" is, ultimately, a fun ride. There are bouffant-haired go-go dancers with legs up to the ceiling, a full white-tie orchestra onstage, catchy tunes with the shivering cymbals of the era, bright lights and witty writing.

I overheard another audience member complaining that the performance was "too commercial" and I agree – but commercial isn’t a bad adjective here. Abagnale is, after all, putting on a show – that’s what he does. He's hiding himself behind this distracting facade. And without the lightness and fun of the full-scale Broadway production, with the shining lights and upbeat dance numbers, the piece would feel much too heavy.

My favorite moment of the evening had to be the number "Doctor’s Orders" at the beginning of the second act, when the blood-shy Abagnale cons his way into a position as an ER doctor. It was a comical and truly dynamic performance musically and physically.

The musical made some minor but wise diversions from the plot of the movie; the best was in focusing more on Abagnale’s relationship with his father. "Little Boy, Be a Man," a duet between Hanratty and the washed-up Frank Abagnale, Sr. in a dirty bar, is a powerful testament to the pressures and anxieties that led this young man to embark on a life of crime in the first place.

For more information on "Catch Me If You Can," visit marcuscenter.org.

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