Dallas — In the opening scene of Catch Me If You Can, the most recent Uptown Players’ musical expertly directed by Cheryl Denson, collared conman Frank Abagnale Jr. (Anthony Fortino) innocently tells G-man Carl Hanratty (Christopher Curtis) that the people standing around them at the airport might like to know what led to his arrest, but when Fortino turns to the audience, he does it with a hunger that eclipses any grifting huckster. It’s as if to say, “Let’s be clear: this is going to be a show!”
The pizzazz would be misplaced were it not for his Broadway pipes and the bevy of beauties that come down the stairs to fill out the show-starting number “Live in Living Color.” Director Denson earns our trust from the outset by balancing the promise and payoff, and unlike the main character, every check this show writes clears. Her moments, be they silly or serious, build more reliably than any show of recent memory. It’s a night of sure-footed fun.
The reliable Rodney Dobbs serves up a staircase-backed set of light-up walls and a flat screen TV that increases the flexibility and flair. With rolling units or individual furniture pieces added or removed, the locations follow Abagnale Jr.’s discovery and drive for the fraudulent. Lighting designer Dan Schoedel varies his approach from subtle ambience creating washes to raking nightclub beams and back again as he supports the mad variety of tones you’d expect from the creators of the Broadway hit Hairspray: composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Whittman and original director Jack O’Brien. Terrence McNally wrote the book to Catch Me, which is based on the 2002 movie that starred Leonard DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, which was based on the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.
Abagnale junior idolizes Abagnale senior, who is played with dapper swagger by David Lugo. Despite the suit, smile and gorgeous French war bride played with operatic elegance by Sarah Powell, all isn’t aces with dear old dad. Lugo leans hard into his Sinatra smile. The mask that appears a little thin at first becomes perfectly appropriate as the tale is told. If there needs to be any deeper underpinnings to the underhanded dealings of our protagonist, it’s that dad and mom aren’t what they appear on the surface.
The exact opposite end of the adult spectrum is presented by agent Carl Hanratty of the FBI, played with masterful mugging by Christopher Curtis. He’s a lovably bumbling, by-the-books, straight-shooting (sort of, see the aforementioned “bumbling”) fraud investigator who sets his sights on a mysterious forger of checks. Curtis lends the perfect plod to Fortino’s pizzazz in a role that won Norbert Leo Butz a Tony in the short-lived Broadway production in 2011. As the cop, Carl, gets closer to the criminal, Frank Jr., a certain camaraderie grows.
Just as the show seems to be just about these two, it shifts gears into a love story. As Frank Jr. lays low from his check forging, he winds up impersonating a doctor and predictably falls for a nurse, Brenda (Maranda Harrison). Harrison’s Brenda brings a deeper truthfulness to the show. It’s a harbinger of the tone shift to come. As Frank Jr. looks for love, Hanratty is fast on his tail, which takes him and us back to Frank’s divorced parents and the grime beneath the gloss.
Before reality can sink its teeth too deeply, Brenda’s parents breathe new life into the proceedings. James Williams plays the doubting father, Roger, and Lois Leftwich, his two-drink minimum little Mrs. He’s stodgy and she’s a stitch. Leftwich lands some of the biggest laughs of the night and the whole thing morphs into a Lawrence Welk family musical number.
The biggest barnburner of the night belongs to Brenda. Her torch song “Fly, Fly Away” starts on the bed, adds in back up singers and then blows us all away. It’s just this careful combination of vocal talent, Kevin Gunter’s musical direction and Denson’s careful build that makes the whole evening so satisfying. But an artist is only as good as her tools.
In this case, Anthony Fortino is first and foremost doing the heavy lifting. Number after number he ably takes center stage until it seems that he can’t possibly outdo what he’s done; and then he does it once more by following Harrison’s rousing romantic song with an impassioned evening-ender entitled “Goodbye.” It’s a star turn.
There are other ingredients that can’t go unmentioned. This show features an atypically extra-talented ensemble. Though the guys are good, the girls are great. Called on time and again to be the objects of Frank Jr.’s desire, they slip in, hit their marks and belt their lines with a gleam unseen around here. A glance at their bios suggests that this unusually deep talent pool originates from Texas Christian University. Clearly they’re doing something right out there in Fort Worth. We don’t mind showing us up as long as they make a stop in Dallas on their way to New York.
A list may not mean much in a review, but when you see the show you’ll know. It wouldn’t be the same without Kylie Arnold, Caroline Carden, Alyssa Gardner, Caroline Iliff, Samantha McHenry, Taylor Quick, Jackie Raye, Shelby Ringdahl, Abbie Ruff and Katie Sperry.
The only quibble with an evening of theater this enjoyable is that it’s hard to know if it’s renewed my faith in locally produced musical theater or ruined it.
Director Cheryl Denson and her dynamite cast have raised the bar so high with this gleeful production that the other theaters in town may as well switch to limbo.
Maybe that’s why they call it a game-changer.