“Everyone loves a con man,” said Molly Smith, the longtime creative leader of Arena Stage.
Smith was explaining the appeal of Catch Me If You Can, a 1960s-style musical about a sweet young man who cheats airlines and banks and, yes, even hospitals into thinking he’s someone else.
The show, now in its final week at Arena, celebrates the art of the con—along with the sound and hope of a more innocent time—in a show that’s a perfect metaphor for the stage.
“Actors are chameleons,” Smith told me, in a telephone interview that brightened an otherwise dreary day two weeks after the opening. “Good actors actually inhabit their roles, meaning that the performer is the ultimate imposter. Audiences relate to that, since everyone, at some time or another, has tried to con someone before either getting caught or not.”
Smith, whose name is practically synonymous with Arena, has been its artistic director since 1998. It’s 20 years since she produced South Pacific—her first musical—and some 14 years since she began collaborating with Parker Esse, the former actor and dancer whose choreography fuses the legacies of Jack Cole, creator of jazz dance, and Bob Fosse, master of the staccato slouch.
“Parker and I saw the original version of Catch Me If You Can” —produced on Broadway in 2011, to the tune of mixed reviews and a short run—”and we both found it too heavy on the narrative. It was all ‘tell and show,’ instead of ‘show and tell’ or just ‘show,’ period, which is what theater ought to be.”
Two years ago, following the death of playwright Terrance McNally—a five-time Tony Award winner, venerated by audiences around the world—the two approached the surviving members of the creative team to talk about the possibility of revisions. Lo and behold, the trio—Marc Shaiman, composer; Scott Wittman, co-lyricist with Marc Shaiman; and Tom Kirdahy, head of the McNally estate—actually liked their ideas!
“They were ready to try a different approach,” Smith laughed, still surprised by the ease of the process. “Specifically, they agreed to focus on the father-son angle—the relationship of the con man to his alcoholic father, on the one hand, and to the sympathetic FBI man on the other—and to allow us to rewrite the script.”
Smith was delighted. “It turned out that Tom, the longtime partner and husband of McNally, had another version of the script on hand, written by McNally but never produced. It was, in fact, the fifth draft, and by far the best. So it’s what we used,” she said.
However, even this draft was too long. “We cut nearly 40 pages from the new script and tightened it from three hours to two hours and 20 minutes in order to keep it moving.”
Working together, the Arena group—which included dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke and music director Laura Bergquist—managed to revise the show in six weeks. The original authors, according to Smith, loved it.
“I think of this as a valentine to McNally,” she added, pointing out that people often ask if the show is modeled on the Spielberg film of 2002. It’s not. “We never looked at the film. Instead, we focused entirely on the play.”
The best thing about the show, Smith concluded, is that it represents Arena’s emergence from the pandemic. “It’s a real joy to see young people in the audience. It warms my heart to see families, especially, bonding over the show, identifying with both the star and the two father figures.”
Kids love it, she explained, because the lead character—Frank Jr., played by Christian Thompson—is a teenager when the show begins. Adults love it because they can relate to the two fathers: Frank Sr., played by Jeff McCarthy, the perpetual loser who fails his son, time and again, and Hanratty, the lonely detective who takes his place. Nehal Joshi steals the show as the hunter who loves his prey; he is the eternal clown, hiding his sorrow behind a transparent mask.
Catch Me If You Can, according to Smith, is a continuation of Arena’s role as a leading interpreter of American classical theater, and especially of musicals. “However, most of the musicals we’ve produced have been classics, such as Oklahoma and My Fair Lady, where the authors were long dead. This was the first time we were able to work with living lyricists and composers.”
Coming up at Arena are two new works, both music-filled, and both illuminating long-forgotten or overlooked episodes in American history.
The first is Drumfolk, Step Afrika!’s passionate evocation of an all-but-forgotten slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1739. The uprising, driven by drums, so frightened the white colonists that they passed a law, one year later, banning the slaves from assembly outside a church, and from using drums. The slaves responded by using their feet to fight back.
The show, now on an international tour, will pause for a month-long run at Arena beginning May 31.
The second, and final, show for this season is American Prophet, a world premiere about Frederick Douglass—the man who escaped slavery and emerged to become one of the leading abolitionists of his time—co-written by Charles Randolph-Wright and Marcus Hummon and starring Cornelius Smith Jr. Set during the Civil War, the musical features songs that incorporate the actual words of some of Douglass’s most fiery orations. American Prophet begins July 15.
Catch Me If You Can plays through April 17, 2022, on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($41–$105) may be purchased online by phone at 202-488-3300, or at the Arena Stage sales office Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 8 p.m. 35% discount with promo code: FLYAWAY. For information on programs such as pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, Southwest Nights, and hero’s discounts, visit arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
The Catch Me If You Can Program is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and photo identification must be shown to enter the building and masks must be worn in the building. Arena’s complete safety protocols are here.
In Arena’s ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ gloss, glitz, and con (review by Lisa Traiger)
Step Afrika!’s exuberant ‘Drumfolk’ makes DC debut at Strathmore (preview by Debbie Minter Jackson of the show coming to Arena next)