People only know what you tell them. And this person is telling you that the best musical experience you’re going to have this summer is at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. Directed by Mark Briner with Musical Direction by Julie Ann Hawk, the area premier of Broadway’s Catch Me If You Can is live in living color under the stars for a limited engagement and it is nothing short of a stupendous dance-musical sensation. Bursting with jazz, swing, and personalities a mile wide, the snazzy musical— based on the DreamWorks Motion Picture— features a firecracker book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and additional Lyrics from Scott Wittman. An evening of jubilant jazz; ASGT’s Catch Me If You Can is one for the books, a real swell keeper.
Mood music needs mood lighting and Lighting Designer Matt Tillett delivers this demand with flare. In addition to having sharp spots that snap into focus whenever the actors demand them, Tillet’s design work reflects the smoldering nature of the jazzy musical. The parlor trick that impresses the pants right off the audience is the silhouette reflection of Hanratty on the slanted roof behind the theatre at the close of “Man Inside the Clues.” This is followed with the epitome of blues lighting (naturally in blue) for the brief reprise of that song later in Act II.
Crafting the aesthetic of a 1960’s musical is no small task, particularly not when the dancing ensemble change costumes close to a dozen times. The show’s Director, Mark Briner, along with a team of assistants outfits the entire company in multiple posh outfits that just scream 1960’s iconic pop culture. From the sky blue and perfectly fitted Pan-Am stewardess suits to the razzle-dazzle glitter white pants numbers, Briner has a concise vision of when and where this musical exists. Briner balances the sexual appeal in the female ensemble costumes as well— where they’re midriff tied New York Yankees uniform tops or nurses garb— so that the girls look titular without being too risqué. There’s glitter enough to around and the more spectacular numbers in the performance reflect as much as Frank Abagnale Jr. receives sparkling sequined tux jackets for these songs.
Choreographer Becca Vourvoulas sets the bar of dance standards sky high in this production. And her dancing ensemble delivers with vigorous zest, indefatigable exuberance, and synchronized style that cannot be beat. The perpetual pumped energy that radiates throughout each of the company dance numbers is exhilaratingly exhausting; how they keep up with the fancy footwork and continual up-tempo dance moves is astonishing to behold. Vourvoulas includes a great deal of pelvic pops, hip swings and sways, as well as the more iconic Broadway show-stopping moves like a kick-line and group hops all throughout the production. Her understanding of Briner’s vision allows for the perfect balance of sensual and sultry for numbers like “Doctors Orders” and “The Pinstripes are All that They See” while still toeing the line of family fun. “Don’t Break The Rules” is a phenomenally enthusiastic number which really sets the tone for the rest of the show.
Musical Director Julie Ann Hawk gets the ensemble sounding strong and ensures that their vocal energy consistently matches their physical energy so that while they soar through numbers like “Jet Set” the quality of both the singing and the dancing equal nothing less than superior. Orchestral Conductor Ken Kimble works hard to provide the epitome of balance from the live jazz-band style orchestra (which is featured prominently in an artistically split fashion right on the stage) ensuring that they sound full and booming without taking out the sounds of soloists or duets at any time during the production. The musicality of the show from both the orchestra and the ensemble is outstanding.
Briner actualizes the potential of this musical; pushing the fun and energy of the show so that it erupts straight off the stage and out into the audience. Unique decisions like double casting Alicia Sweeney as both Frank’s mother, Paula, and then Brenda’s mother, Carol, are the result of thoroughly actualized symbolism. With this choice, the audience is able to more literally see Frank Jr’s desperate longing for a wholesome mother figure in his mother. The blocking and use of the stair-stacked stage (conceptualized and created by Set Designer and Construction Supervisor Matt Mitchell) fits the pacing of the show leading to the ultimate fast-paced enjoyment experience.
The ensemble is sharp, their dancing sensational and their voices strong and matching in impressive quality. Both “Jet Set” and “Doctor’s Orders” are numbers that allow each member of the female ensemble to showcase their powerful voices with solo lines divided equally among them. Stand-out cameo performances are not strictly limited to the women, however, as Agents Cod (Nick Carter) Branton (Fred Fletcher-Jackson) and Dollar (Jamie Austin Jacobs) fill in the wise-cracking gaps as the irritated but humorous agents of the FBI. Carter in particular is a standout in this role with his quick and quippy comic timing.
Sweeney, who spends all of the first act and a brief bit of the second act as the enigmatic Paula Abagnale, is a versatile stage performer with a voice that fits both of her roles readily. During “Don’t Be a Stranger” she floats gracefully from arm to arm of her two dance partners like a lost drifting memory trapped in a mind long ago. Her voice in this number is delectable and laced with hints of emotional regret that really ground the song in its sentiment.
Playing opposite of Sweeney is the brass and classy Tom Newbrough. As Frank Abagnale Sr. he proves the Jr. is really a chip off the old block when it comes to being a spellbinding flimflammer. Newbrough posses a savvy charisma that is both suave and disarming, particularly in his opening number, “The Pinstripes are All that They See.” But it’s the duet he shares with his son, “Butter Outta Cream” that really puts the icing on this smoothly frosted and charming cake. Proving his versatility, it becomes harrowing to watch Newbrough take the character through rapid decline; falling from the graceful Sinatra to a faded and cracked bum without hope as the play progresses.
As a refreshing breath of air, by comparison to the minxy tarts of the ensemble, Brenda Strong (Hayley Briner) is the innocent ingénue and girl next door. Briner infuses convivial and genuine sweetness and simplicity into her character portrayal, particularly during her first few interactions with Frank Jr. Though her musical numbers are limited, the delicate soprano sound that she achieves in “Seven Wonders” (a song where she is the secondary harmony duet) are a delightful surprise. It’s “Fly, Fly Away” that stuns the audience, showcasing both her vast vocal range in the low and high end as well as her emotional connectivity to the song.
Cat and mouse, both live in living color Carl Hanratty (Joshua Mooney) and Frank Abagnale Jr. (Ron Giddings) are the thunder and lighting, the jazz and pizzazz, the Frankie and Dino of the show that make it a stupendously successful sensation well worth enjoying regardless of what the weather is like out under the stars in downtown Annapolis. The express chase relationship that Mooney and Giddings develop is extreme; the way they play off one another in spoken and sung moments extraordinarily congenial. Their interactions spark and drive the production and their closing duet, “Stuck Together (Strange But True)” is the perfect way to close the performance.
Mooney delivers a spastic and bombastic nature that really showcases how loose of a cannon the Hanratty character really is. He’s loaded with bad puns, delivered with such comic force that they almost become funny again. There is a ferocious sense of presence and grounded commitment to the character of Hanratty radiating in thunderous force from Mooney when he takes the stage. He owns “Man Inside the Clues” as a heavy jazzed blues number that really burbles in his soul. “Little Boy Be a Man” (a comic but old school big band duet shared with Newbrough) is one of several moments where Mooney gets to display his song and dance abilities. The show-stopper, “Don’t Break the Rules” is an amalgamation of his enormous personality, fancy footwork, and exceptional singing voice that make him a remarkable performer and perfect for the role.
Giddings, as the show’s narrative lead, finds the duality of the character and juxtaposes the charming insincerity of a conman against the desperate terrified child that just wants to save his family and transforms them into staged perfection. His voice, being second to none, is loaded with riveting emotional connections for numbers like “Goodbye” where a sense of victorious relief floods this song. With epic sustains capping out numbers like “Live in Living Color” and “Someone Else’s Skin” Giddings owns each of his solos and duets with vigorous zest. Finding heartfelt sincerity for the romantic duet “Seven Wonders”, Giddings proves that his versatility as a singer and performer knows no bounds.
A musical that will live with you all the back to the car, with toe-tapping numbers that make you want to jump and jive in your seat, Catch Me if You Can is a summer-sizzler just waiting to be sampled; an epic theatrical indulgence that must be seen this July!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Catch Me If You Can plays through July 25, 2015 at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre— 143 Compromise Street in Historic Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 268-9212 or purchase them online.