The subject and story of Catch Me If You Can sound like the flights of fancy that customarily keep musicals aloft, but it's propelled by an actual rascal and the unlikely high points of his actual career(s). Frank Abagnale, Jr.'s life as a con man sped found him posing as an airline pilot and a pediatrician.
A Best Musical Tony Award nominee in 2011, it's getting its national tour kickoff run at the Providence Performing Arts Center (through October 14). Judging from opening night, success is assured, thanks to two central characters that we come to care about and songs that mostly grow out of the story rather than just decorate it.
With a book by Terrence McNally and score by Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, it has the right credentials, as does director Jack O'Brien (the last three worked on Hairspray). The musical is based on Abagnale's 1980 autobiography of the same name but mostly on the 2002 film, which added an ever-frustrated FBI agent played by Tom Hanks pursuing bad boy Leonardo DiCaprio.
The touring show co-stars Stephen Anthony who, in a dance number, gets to sport a sequined airline pilot jacket that Leo would envy. As FBI agent Carl Hanratty, Merritt David Janes may not have Hanks's winsome charm, but the man has laser beam energy and can high kick like a Rockette.
Despite a title that suggests suspense, the tale is about pursuit rather than escape, as the opening reveals. Surrounded by FBI agents at Miami International Airport, Frank begs to be allowed to tell the curious people around them what led to this moment, how an outgoing charmer talked his way into so many professions, all before he was 21. Since his life up to that point was a show he was putting on, with himself as the smart-aleck star, the '60s TV program motif that follows makes sense.
The source of his criminal behavior is, simplistically, pinned on his father, Frank Sr. (Dominic Fortuna), who teaches him that the impression he makes, "the uniform," is all that matters. Frank gets an inkling of his sketchy skill in high school when, mistaken for a substitute teacher because he's wearing a jacket, he teaches French class for a week — even taking them on a field trip to a French fry factory! He ends up running away, not worrying about money when he learns how easily he can sweet talk his way into cashing checks. (They eventually add up to more than a million dollars.)
Wearing the uniform and forged identification badge of a Pan Am pilot, Frank never actually flies a plane but rather "deadheads" — traveling as a guest on other airlines — all over the world. Meanwhile, Hanratty is in charge of catching "paper hangers" for the FBI and is hot on Frank's trail. He tracks him to a Los Angeles hotel room but is talked out of victory as Frank convinces him he is a Secret Service agent who has already caught Abagnale.