The real surprise about the breezy caper musical, “Catch Me If You Can,” is that underneath all the giddy, gaudy, mad-dashing fun, there’s a charming and touching love story between a brash young conman and a grizzled FBI agent obsessed with bringing him to justice.
It evolves from a cop/crook thing into a relationship that’s more of a world-weary teacher trying to keep a reckless kid from messing up all hope of a happy future. It’s a slick, clever cat-and-mouse game with old-fashioned heart.
This regional premiere for Music Theatre Wichita, crisply directed by Wayne Bryan with jazzy, sophisticated choreography by Linda Goodrich, is also a sleek, atmospheric, period-piece valentine to the 1960s.
It was the heyday of TV variety shows, and choreographer Goodrich pays homage to the ubiquitous dancers who appeared behind every singer like Perry Como or Dinah Shore, but goes bigger to fill a stage that accommodates more than a 13-inch living room screen.
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For his part, set designer Robert Andrew Kovach uses a giant TV screen as a centerpiece with occasional live TV projections of action on the stage behind the players for some remarkable solo close-ups. He also uses versatile backlit, neon-like sliding panels in red, green, blue and white to create everything from an airport lobby to a nightclub to a hospital, motel room and FBI office.
And costume designer Dixon Reynolds presents an idealized view of the period through eye-popping, candy-color shades like tangerine, lime, turquoise and hot pink.
The musical moments by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman – the guys who did “Hairspray” – have a loose, jazzy, swingy sound that whips up images of TV detectives. It’s mostly breezy rather than epic, but it’s highly listenable and spot-on entertaining.
The romp is based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who passed himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer and lived high on the hog thanks to $2 million in hot checks – all before age 21. Skyler Adams, an MTWichita alum who has gone on to a professional career, is back to play Frank Jr.
There’s a bit of the sly, grinning, serendipitous attitude in Frank Jr. that reminds you of the kid in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” but from a criminal perspective. Adams walks that fine line that keeps Frank Jr. delightfully roguish rather than menacing.
Adams also has a powerful, approachable voice that buoys us through his “Live in Living Color” recurring anthem, charms us with his “Seven Wonders” love song to his girlfriend and touches us with his despairing “Goodbye” as he realizes his future is slipping away.
Thom Sesma is grouchy, by-the-book FBI man Carl Hanratty, and he proves to be a terrific showstopper when he and his black-suited, fedoraed G-men (like a line of dancing Don Drapers) strut, swagger and pony their way through “Don’t Break the Rules.”
Sesma, a Broadway veteran best remembered here as the king in last summer’s “The King and I,” plays Hanratty as an impatient, exasperated but lovable grouch. It’s a layered role of a man fighting his own demons while trying to save the world.
Broadway veteran David Hess has a rich, resonant baritone as Frank Sr., a not-so-successful conman who advises his impressionable son that appearance is everything in their game (“The Pinstripes Are All That They See”). Paula Leggett Chase, also a Broadway veteran, is surprisingly glamorous as Frank Jr.’s French-born mom, who married an American soldier to escape war-torn Europe, but then tries to make the most of a ho-hum marriage. Her strong soprano gives substance to “Don’t Be a Stranger.”
Carolyn Anne Miller, a second-year member of the MTWichita company, plays Frank Jr.’s girlfriend, Brenda, and gives a beautiful, haunting rendition of “Fly, Fly Away” as the law closes in. Tim and Karen Robu, longtime local favorites, are hilarious if a bit over the top as Brenda’s snooty, somewhat bigoted Southern parents. Their “Our Family Tree” with their own impromptu backup family singers is a highlight.