October 30, 2019

A Young Con Artist Tells His True Story in “Catch Me If You Can”; The Pennington Players Present the Broadway Musical at Kelsey Theatre

“CATCH ME IF YOU CAN”: Performances are underway for The Pennington Players’ production of “Catch Me If You Can.” Directed by Laurie Gougher, the musical runs through November 3 at the Kelsey Theatre. A bright red sweater is one of many costumes — and personas — worn by Frank Abagnale Jr. (Scott Silagy, center), as he tells the story of his many exploits, with the help of the ensemble. (Photo by Jon Cintron)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

As a con artist, Frank Abagnale Jr. gave the authorities plenty of metaphoric song and dance, so it is fitting that he gets to do so, literally, as a character onstage.

Catch Me If You Can is being presented by The Pennington Players at the Kelsey Theatre. This brash, energetic musical is based on the true story that became a hit Steven Spielberg film in 2002.

Abagnale originally detailed his exploits in his 1980 autobiography, which he authored with Stan Redding. The 2011 musical version has a flippant but amiable libretto by Terrence McNally. The music is by Marc Shaiman, and the lyrics are by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The score by Shaiman and Wittman is characterized by much of the jocularity and musical flavor present in their songs for Hairspray, which also is set in the 1960s.

Audiences who have attended multiple Kelsey productions will notice that the orchestra is not in the cubicle above the stage, as is usually the case, but on the stage itself. The set designers — director Laurie Gougher, John M. Maurer, Jeff Cantor, and Haley Schmalbach — have decorated the rear of the stage with a red curtain, with diamond-shaped holes that imitate an airplane’s windows.

The young Frank is arrested at Miami International Airport by a team of agents, led by Carl Hanratty. Frank begs Hanratty to let him tell his story to the onlookers. Initially Hanratty refuses; “You’re not putting on a show for these people,” he snaps at Frank.

Obviously this is precisely the cue Frank needs. “A show?” he eagerly repeats. Led by music director, conductor, and pianist François Suhr, the musicians — whom Frank casts as the “Frank Abagnale Jr. Orchestra”— give a crisp performance of the introduction to “Live in Living Color.” This opening number makes clear that Frank will tell his story in the form of a television variety show, with the onlookers becoming his backup ensemble.

This framing device, in which a criminal fantasizes about being a performer, is reminiscent of the musical Chicago. But it gives this Catch Me If You Can a concept that makes it a fit for musical theater, and a disparate entity from the Spielberg film. It also allows for a clever scene in which Frank delivers an imitation commercial break. The “products” he endorses, including an ordinary bottle of glue, help him to create fake checks — and identities.

Chris Ghaffoor’s lighting underscores the demarcation between Frank’s narration and his interactions with characters from his past. It also enhances the visual interest of the production numbers; a stairway at the rear of the stage flashes a varied palette of colors. Equally colorful are Sally Page Sohor’s costumes, which immediately establish the period.

The action flashes back to Frank’s life with his parents in New Rochelle. His father, Frank Sr., was a soldier stationed in France during World War II. His mother, Paula, was performing in a diner, and saw the older Frank in the audience. In “The Pinstripes Are All That They See,” Frank Sr. slyly sings to his son. Clearly this lesson about the importance of appearances is one the younger Frank is soon to take to heart.

It becomes apparent that the relationship between Frank’s parents is troubled. Frank arrives home from school and sees a friend of his father’s dancing with Paula. Eventually the Abagnales are in court, where Frank finds himself at the center of a custody battle. His solution is to run away.

Scott Silagy exudes charismatic confidence as Frank, capturing both his panache and the vulnerability it covers. Silagy delivers an impassioned rendition of “Someone Else’s Skin,” a song that starts as a slow ballad but becomes rhythmically driving. The number allows Frank to explain his penchant for assuming different identities.

One of the first identities Frank assumes is that of a pilot, a job that holds special appeal after he encounters several female flight attendants at a hotel.

Thomas “TC” Coppolecchia is suitably gruff but paternal as Hanratty, for whom the elusive Frank holds special fascination. Coppolecchia and Silagy make the wistful “Christmas is My Favorite Time of Year” a high point. This poignant and witty duet acknowledges the complicated relationship that both men have with the holiday season, and it has some of the best lyrics in the show.

In the guise of “Dr. Connors,” Frank secures a job at the Atlanta General Hospital. Once again he is surrounded by an ensemble of attractive women — in this case, nurses. The suggestive number “Doctor’s Orders,” which evokes the musical language of Motown, is given a powerful performance by featured singer Tia Brown.

Jojo Parks makes the most of the role of Brenda Strong, a nurse to whom Frank becomes engaged. Brenda’s one solo number is “Fly, Fly Away,” to which Parks gives delicate phrasing and an introspective tone that is right for the character.

Unfortunately the part is underwritten; Brenda’s actions contribute to a major plot turn near the end, so she deserves more development and stage time than she is given.

Crystal Huau is entertaining in her portrayal of Brenda’s perky mother, Carol. The performance is well matched by that of Dennis Tolentino as the equally amiable but more suspicious father, Roger.

Part of the reason that the relationship between Frank and Brenda is underdeveloped is that the romantic element is not what the writers have chosen to emphasize. Their priority is exploring the extent to which we imitate the behavior of our parents, and the necessity of finding an identity that is separate from theirs.

Hanratty eventually finds the house where Paula lives with her new husband. Both Paula and Frank Sr. ask Hanratty to give Frank a message: “Don’t Be a Stranger.” This bitingly sarcastic number, which underlines the fact that it is Frank’s parents who have been absent, is given just the right amount of pathos by Gina Augusta, who portrays Paula.

The number also is given some astute choreography by Trina Shumsonk. Throughout the show, Frank is flanked by a female ensemble. But here we see Paula dance with a male ensemble. This sequence highlights the extent to which Frank has, intentionally or not, patterned his own life after the behavior of his parents. It is a fine example of a production element developing a theme inherent in the script.

Michael Zweig delivers a layered portrayal of Frank Sr. He is suitably bombastic in the motivational “Butter Outta Cream,” and introspective in “Little Boy Be A Man,” a duet in which Hanratty and Frank Sr. recall their flawed fathers.

Director Laurie Gougher keeps the action moving at the brisk pace that this show requires. Her staging, which includes thoughtful use of vertical levels, maximizes clarity.

In terms of its script and score, Catch Me If You Can is somewhat uneven. Its strengths include good-natured banter between characters; and themes that are developed throughout several numbers. Flaws include a tendency to rush or gloss over certain plot points, such as Hanratty’s initial discovery that Frank’s checks are fake; and, as noted, underdevelopment of an ostensibly major character.

But at its best the show affords a talented company, such as The Pennington Players, ample material with which to mount an entertaining production. Under Gougher’s skillful direction the cast delivers exuberant performances marked by crisp comic timing and high energy.

Presented by The Pennington Players, Catch Me If You Can will play at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, through November 3. For tickets, showtimes, and further information call (609) 570-3333.