Catch Me If You Can begins at Miami International Airport where Frank Abagnale Jr. is finally cornered by FBI agent Carl Hanratty. As Hanratty pulls out the handcuffs, Frank asks if he can at least tell people why he’s being arrested. When Hanratty reluctantly agrees, Frank looks to the audience with a twinkle in his eye; he will tell us his story in “a show”.

Jake Speer and cast. Photograph © Robert Catto

The lighting changes, dancers appear – chorus girls in tiny sequined frocks, men in white slacks and tops with pastel stripes – and Frank and the company launch into the glitzy number Live in Living Color, as if they are appearing in a television entertainment show from the 1960s.

From there, the musical whisks us through Frank’s story, which is based on the extraordinary life of a real conman named Frank Abagnale Jr. who, in the 1960s, between the ages of 15 and 22, racked up $2.5 million in debt using forged cheques. During that time, he assumed eight different identities, and pretended to be an airline pilot for Pan Am, a lawyer, and a pediatrician. Wanted in 12 countries for his crimes, he served five years in jail but was then released by the US Federal Government on condition that he work with the FBI to help them solve financial fraud.

If you didn’t know that it was true, you’d find it hard to believe. In 2002, Steven Spielberg made a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, adapted from Abagnale Jr.’s (loose) autobiography. The musical, with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), and book by Terrence McNally, opened on Broadway in March 2011 and after mixed reviews closed in September of that year. Nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it won one for Norbert Leo Butz who played Hanratty.

Although it has enough going for it, including a swinging 60s score, it’s not the greatest musical. There’s no real dramatic tension and virtually no character development. Crucially you find out almost nothing about Frank himself. His father Frank Abgnale Sr. (who he adores) is a two-bit shyster who teaches him the art of the con from a young age, and applauds his son’s early scams at school. Frank Jr. is devastated when his parents separate, running away and embarking on his life of dashing crime. He wants to help his father financially and save his store, and when he falls in love and decides to settle down to an honest life, he naively asks Hanratty to stop pursuing him. But beyond these sketchy facts, we learn almost nothing about what makes him tick.

While the show draws parallels between Frank and Hanratty, there’s little depth here either. As for the show’s depiction of the women, it harks back to the era, with air hostesses dazzled by pilots, nurses swooning over doctors, and wives looking after the home.

Tim Draxl and cast members. Photograph © Robert Catto

However, the swinging 60s score hits all the right notes, with tuneful pastiches that reference numbers by the Rat Pack, girl groups like The Shirelles, crooning saloon songs, big diva ballads and smooth Bossa nova.

For all the show’s flaws, Cameron Mitchell has directed a highly enjoyable production (produced by LPD in association with the Hayes Theatre Co), which sits beautifully in the Hayes Theatre – yet another example of a show that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles, and flash staging of a big commercial production, but finds its feet in the intimate space.

With a 30-year career as a choreographer, Mitchell is making his directorial debut and he pulls it off nicely, keeping the action moving seamlessly, while his choreography has the show firing. He makes clever, fluid use of Kelsey Lee’s simple, open set, which includes a dark, mirrored back wall, a few large boxes which the cast move quickly into place for different scenes, and a proscenium arch with a row of coloured lights to serve the show’s framing device. It’s all the show needs. Into this flexible space, Christine Mutton’s fabulous costumes – which capture the silhouettes and colour palettes of 1960s fashion and television entertainment, along with the suits for the detectives and sharp airline uniforms – add plenty of colour and fun, together with Jasmine Rizk’s lighting.

Mitchell has choreographed a fair few shows at the Hayes (Calamity Jane, High Fidelity, Cry-Bay and Spamalot), and he knows how to use the space. Here, his movement tunes into the 60s vibe and has an exciting energy. Don’t Break the Rules, in which Hanratty and his detectives sing about the need to abide by the law is a highlight, with the female dancers also dressed in suits.

Mitchell has also cast the show extremely well. As the scampish Frank Jr. Jake Speer has just the right suave, boyish, mischievous charm, and an alluring glint in the eye that he flashes at the audience as he alights on his next scam. He is well matched by Tim Draxl as Frank Jr.’s dogged nemesis, Carl Hanratty, the nerdy, lonely, workaholic FBI agent who handles his gun with the klutziness of a child playing cops and robbers. Both sing with a laid-back ease that suits the groove of the music.

Simon Burke and Jake Speer. Photograph © Robert Catto

Simon Burke finds the show’s few moments of emotion as Frank Sr., a man with a snake oil sleaziness, whose life falls around his ears and who ends up drunk and alone in a bar.

They are well supported by Penny Martin, who plays Frank Jr.’s French mother Paula Abagnale and Carol Strong, the mother of Frank Jr.’s intended Brenda (with Burke as her husband Roger Strong), and Jessica Di Costa who is sweet as Brenda, delivering her big, Aretha Franklin-like song Fly, Fly Away with emotion.

The ensemble is strong, and the band led by Musical Director Anthony Cutrupi (with Steven Kreamer as Musical Supervisor) knocks it out of the park.

Catch Me If You Can plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney until August 18

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