Belmont Performing Arts Centre
5 to 13 May 2023
Last night I travelled further out west to attend the opening night of Theatre Of The Damned’s latest production in Belmont, Catch Me If You Can. Anyone who knows me in theatre can tell you that Hairspray is one of my all time favourite musicals and so many people over the years have assured me that if I loved Hairspray with all my heart then I would love Catch Me If You Can just as much and after the display I was lucky enough to witness last night, it’s safe to say that this encouragement certainly paid off. As soon as the house lights went down and the pre-show announcements started to play in the form of a cabin crew announcement, I knew I was in for a real visual and sensual delight and soon enough, the audience was greeted with an entertainment spectacle and an extravagant festival fit for the jet set, theatre patrons and even kings and queens throughout the world. When the show was over, the entire crowd kept internally begging for more and I couldn’t help but give the entire company a truly deserving standing ovation, becoming the second production this year to move me to that extent but how did it come to be?
After the departure of the production’s original director, first time director Ben McNaughton stood up to the the plate by proving that one doesn’t need to constantly sit in the director’s chair in order to create a theatrical masterpiece but years of experience and hard work on the stage can be just as efficient and detrimental to the success of any production in their hands, giving an all new meaning to stand and deliver. With the highly minimalistic set comprising of just the orchestra, a sheet door and brick patterned curtains, McNaughton’s creative vision relied solely on retro props and costumes as colourful as muppets to tell the story of legendary con artist Frank Abagnale Jr, effectively placing the audience right into the heart of 1950s/1960s American society with all the glitz and glamour that came with the introduction of colour television and spectacularly guiding the cast to greatness through grounded portrayals that never seemed over the top through a directorial debut that was imaginative and immersive. After introducing herself as a formidable force to be reckoned with in the theatre world last year through Theatre Of The Damned’s previous production of Gypsy, Mae Udarbe cemented her status as one of the greatest and most groundbreaking female musical directors in our community as she took a powerful hold of the baton once again for this production. This time around, Udarbe and her trusted band really inserted themselves into the narrative by demonstrating that they were all respective stars in their own right just as much as the performers on stage, as there was never a single vocal that lacked emotion or went out of key in the slightest, there was never a single sound mishap under sound designer Ben Anderson’s command in a rare, flawless sound display and there was never a single instrument or band member that played an incorrect note in a prestigious, pleasurable and perfectly pitched MD turn that deserves every theatrical accolade of the highest regard. Finally, after making his choreography debut at Theatre Of The Damned last year for their production of Bright Star, Andrew Coomber was back in his element and meaning business as he choreographed one of his all time favourite musicals in a thorough, thrilling and throwback choreographic triumph. No matter what dance skills were possessed by the on stage performers, Coomber succesfully made it his mission to get the cast exercising the greatest of their abilities to step and sell every routine, with the ensemble extravagantly emphasising the story being vocally told through their everlasting energy and enthusiasm and each lead hypnotising and hyping the crowd up with their choreographic chemistry, especially in numbers led by duos, going together like peaches and cream, pancakes and syrup, peanut butter and jelly and even chicken and waffles.
When it came to Catch Me If You Can’s colourful, cunning and creative characters, each cast member challenged themselves to make their real life counterparts proud, construct their entire world and convince the audience that they’ve transformed into these real life inspired beings and that any trace of the actors themselves would disappear as soon as they called beginners. First, we have to give props to what is arguably, the greatest onstage comeback Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit will see this year as Duncan Esler returned to the stage after a sixteen year absence to portray FBI Agent Carl Hanratty, a man hot on the trail to catch one of the greatest con artists who ever lived and strictly enforce the law through dynamic, disciplinary values. In a musical where most of the memorable musical numbers, monologues and moments revolve around Frank Abagnale Jr’s character, Esler continuously ensured the audience that Hanratty was equally as pivotal to the story in a once in a lifetime performance that was unforgettable and unlimited, taking centre stage on many occasions, with his main number Don’t Break The Rules becoming one of the production’s biggest standouts and with over four decades of theatrical experience, Esler showcased to our entire theatre community that he’s still got it even after all these years regardless of his extended hiatus. In the role of Frank Abagnale Sr was another legend in the amateur circuit, Mr. David Postill whose portrayal of a man betrayed by the love of his life and his best friend, falls deep into despair through the bottle and his evergrowing tax hole but tries his hardest to keep it together for his devoted son tugged at the heartstrings of the crowd while still giving us lively moments to get us singing and dancing along with him. Hollywood legend Christopher Walken may have received an Academy Award nomination for his take on Frank Sr in the 2002 film which the musical is based, but Postill utilised his unique skills to make the role his very own and could even garner a nomination or two himself by the end of the year for a performance that was dashing and dedicated and had the crowd wanting him to be our dad too.
The two leading ladies in Frank Jr’s story were his mother, Paula Abagnale and the driven young woman who captured his heart in the second act, Brenda Strong who were portrayed by Jenn Stirk and Paris Walsh respectively. For her performance of a French woman who migrated to the US with her new husband during the war but discovers more to life than the one she settled for with her family, Stirk achieved her goal in making the role of Paula human instead of heartless as we got to see her character’s yearning for fulfilment on full display through expression and emotion on Stirk’s part in a passionate and praiseworthy turn. For her portrayal of a nurse with her own secrets who allows Frank Jr to be himself around her while he’s on the run, falling head over heels for him in the process and out of love, does the unthinkable to save his life and at the same time, save her own, Walsh placed her trust in her character, body and soul, to deliver a strong and stimulating performance that was able to ease the mind of her lover and the audience when the storm that was Frank Jr’s life got too much to bare and Brenda’s big send off in the form of Walsh’s Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera-esque vocal performance of the fan favourite song Fly, Fly Away, was like a lullaby reminding us that everything would be okay. Credit is also due for the others who played significant roles in Frank Jr’s story, Kim Edwards and Barry Eeles were highly entertaining and electric with their portrayals of Brenda’s parents Carol and Roger Strong, especially in their showstopping number (Our) Family Tree. Gerry McKeague, the appropriately named Jett Sansom and Kefyalew Amlaku (who made his Australian theatrical debut in this production) were comical and conniving in all the best ways possible with their portrayals of Hanratty’s fellow FBI agents, Cod, Dollar and Branton, reminiscent of comedy legends like The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. While Anna Flint, Rebecca Wik, Ava Davies and Lucy Martin were crafty and charismatic with their portrayals of flight attendants and dance leaders, Shellie, Cindy, Lindy and Mindy, who all made sure that their characters were not just dismissed as being pretty faces and showcased their worth to the production as a whole.
Last, but simply not least, we come to the man of the hour, Frank Abagnale Jr himself and the young person who portrayed him, Storm Randall, who for only their second theatrical performance outside of school, was unquestionably crowned the undisputed monarch of this spectacle. A full 180 to their previous performance as Marius in CentreStage’s production of Les Misérables last year, Randall embodied every element of their character to a T as they showcased their vast acting range to portray both Frank Jr’s daring and desperate sides ever so convincingly, that they had you rooting for the character from start to finish. Their vocal chops reminiscent of teen heartthrobs of the 2000s like Jesse McCartney and Clay Aiken sat perfectly in the range required to sing Frank Jr’s numbers and their choreographic skills were so swift and smooth like a glider plane riding the wind to achieve Frank Jr’s mannerisms and master, all of which effortlessly suiting them to a point that can make their character’s original Broadway performer Aaron Tveit envious. With two highly acclaimed performances back to back, Randall has steadfastly established themself as a lead performer who can hold any audience in the palm of their hands and it’s this role here that can easily land them award nominations and maybe even award wins when the 2023 theatrical season comes to a close, especially with a performance as magnificent and magnetic as this one.
Catch Me If You Can may very well be Theatre Of The Damned’s greatest outing to date as the performers and prod team brought their A game in every aspect to bring this musical masterpiece to the Geelong theatre community. Theatrical phenomena like this is an experience many of us are lucky to witness only a few times throughout every show season in a circuit where hundreds of productions are produced every year and the team that some say had a Midas touch, were swimming in gold right before our eyes and when award season comes along, I think that this company has the potential to make the most prestigious nominations rain down on them. It only makes me even more excited for what Theatre Of The Damned have in store for the community next as they finally get the recognition they truly deserve. Special shouout to Tony and Elise Dahl and Ben McNaughton for such eclectic work behind the scenes on the prod team and to David Postill for yet another groundbreaking performance that wowed the crowd. Tickets are still on sale so make sure you get your hands on some, catch them if you can (couldn’t help myself there), support the company and local theatre as this is a production that can not and should not be missed. Congratulations to the entire cast and crew associated with Catch Me If You Can on such a stellar opening night, chookas for the rest of your run and keep making butter out of cream live in living colour.
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