Catch Me If You Can: The Musical Makes You Rethink Dinner Theater in Peoria

The inevitable kick line in Arizona Broadway Theatre's Catch Me If You Can.
The inevitable kick line in Arizona Broadway Theatre's Catch Me If You Can. Shari Corbett

Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of Catch Me If You Can: The Musical is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. This zippy, engaging tuner might — thanks to delightful performances, neat staging, and a better-than-decent songbook — change how we respond to the phrase “dinner theater in Peoria.”

Based on the 2002 film of the same name and a 1980 autobiography by con man Frank Abagnale Jr., this musical made a much smaller splash than its authors’ previous work. Yet Catch Me’s libretto by Terrence McNally is a tidy translation of Abagnale’s screwy travails, and its score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of Hairspray fame is something more than serviceable. On Broadway in 2011, the production played a respectable six months and received four Tony Awards nominations, including one for Best Musical. Norbert Leo Butz won a Best Actor Tony for his lead performance.

Now this show has, like so many musicals both fair and foul, hit the road, bus-and-trucking its way across the country. Docked at ABT, Catch Me arrives spruced up and shiny and making an improbable bid for excellent summertime theater. By a happy confluence of writing, costume design, and very competent acting, the many characters in this production never become a hazy mess. Stephen Casey’s direction is marked by precision and an eye toward the usual audience-pleasing kicklines and occasional show-stopping ballad.

Its book is a no-brainer, even for those not familiar with the film or the story of Abagnale, who in the 1960s posed as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and an attorney while kiting checks and fleecing unsuspecting professionals of millions of dollars in various cities over several years. In McNally’s retelling, Abagnale falls in love, natch, but it’s his relationship with FBI agent Carl Hanratty, from whom he’s fleeing, that’s the centerpiece of our story. And it’s the winning performances of Sal Pavia as Abagnale and Matthew Mello as Hanratty that truly elevate this production. Neither resembles musical theater stars, which makes what these super-talented song-and-dance men have to offer all the more enjoyable. I can’t recall the last time I saw character actors in leading roles that can belt and hoof like these two do.

The production’s flaws are negligible. Some of the dancing is flat-footed, and Casey’s choreography (based on Jerry Mitchell’s in the original production) is workmanlike and ordinary. Actress Carolyn McPhee’s French accent is more Swedish than Parisian, and some of McNally’s setups can be seen a mile away. But the set is solid and simple and well designed by Jim Hunter, and the eight-piece band, which is wonderful, plays from on high.

There are cute production numbers and a bittersweet father-son duet that works well, and the Shaiman/Wittman score improves as the story progresses, with prettier, more complex and melodic tunes in Act Two. If Catch Me If You Can isn’t terribly clever, its timing is excellent: In July, what we need more than anything is a neatly polished bit of entertainment to take our minds off the summer.

Catch Me If You Can continues through August 12 at 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Call 623-776-8400 or visit
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela