Pilot. Doctor. Lawyer. Real-life con man Frank Abagnale Jr. managed to trick his way into all three of these occupations before he could legally vote.
Needless to say, Abagnale didn’t lead a quiet life and fittingly, Catch Me If You Can, which opens its doors at the Pantages Theatre on March 12, takes his unbelievable story and translates it perfectly into the glitz and glam of a Broadway musical.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Abagnale Jr. decides to run away from home at the age of 16 following his parents’ divorce. As he makes a new life for himself as a check-forging con artist, he finds love in Brenda Strong (Aubrey Mae Davis), a co-worker he met when he was impersonating a doctor, and forges a dear friendship with the FBI agent determined to track him down to put him in prison.
Abagnale’s unbelievably true story was first made popular in a 2002 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. Though audiences might be skeptical about paying for a show that already garnered success as a movie, actor Ben Laxton, who plays Agent Dollar, one of the officers on the manhunt for Frank, said that the Broadway show gives a new flair to the now-classic story.
“The show gives us the opportunity to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience,” Laxton said. “We hit the main events, but as an audience member you feel like you’re a part of the con in a way.”
Laxton, who also serves as the understudy for Frank, said playing Frank is no easy task.
“Frank is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Laxton said. “He almost never leaves the stage, he sings almost every song,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch Stephen [Anthony] do it every single night so consistently … Putting it into practice is definitely different than just rehearsing.”
Laxton seems up for the challenge, though. A recent graduate from Belmont University, he’s taken on numerous roles, including the lead of the raunchy puppet comedy Avenue Q. As this is both Laxton’s and the show’s first national tour, the actor said he has made it a point to take in the experience and watch how the show evolves over the course of the tour.
“I’m just living the dream right now. Everyone in the cast gets along really well. It feels like I’m on vacation with 30 of my closest friends,” Laxton said. “I’ve never been to L.A., so I’m really excited to see the sites. We have people from all over, so every city we go to we have at least one person who can recommend where to go and what to do.”
One of the curious parts of taking this production on the road is observing how various aspects of the show affect audiences differently depending on where they’re from. Laxton said that Brenda and her Southern belle family in particular, are received with varying levels of enthusiasm and understanding.
“They’re such specific characters. In some areas, people think they’re seeing their neighbors; in some areas, they aren’t as familiar,” Laxton said. “They’re Louisiana parents, so Georgia audiences are more familiar than Denver.”
As an added bonus, the 1960s timeline of the show plays on America’s current obsession with the Mad Men era. Laxton said the time period could definitely be aiding the success of the show, but regardless of what is trending now, he believes it’s story that’s here to stay.
“I think it’s a story that needs to be told over and over again. It’s fun —being in the ’60s, it is very glamorous,” he said. “The writers were inspired by the one scene in the movie where [Frank] comes walking out with all the stewardesses. They just said, ‘We have to write a musical about this.’”
Interestingly, Laxton said the entire cast had the opportunity to meet the real-life Frank Abagnale Jr. to get a better perspective on his life.
Though many might watch the show and get caught up in the drama of the scandals, Laxton said Abagnale looks at his life through a different set of eyes.
“He doesn’t want to be remembered for pulling off all these cons and being cool. He wants to be remembered for turning his life around, for making something of himself and working with the FBI, to make back every dollar that he’s stolen,” Laxton said. “He wants the fact that he redeemed himself and paid his debt to society to be the lesson.”
Even the most ridiculous parts of Abagnale’s life story — forging payroll checks, crisscrossing the country for free, convincing his fiancee’s parents that he’s both a doctor and a lawyer — are moments that, though fascinating to study, were never really planned.
“[Abagnale] never intended to do all the things that he did. He forged checks because he figured out that as long as he kept writing checks people would cash them. It’s really about a lonely kid figuring out how to move on,” Laxton said.
Perhaps though, Abagnale’s complex personality is what makes him resonate with audiences the most. Abagnale is not your typical bad guy, after all; rather, he’s a figure who gets caught in his own web of lies.
Thankfully, the musical offers a way for anyone to experience the ride without all of the consequences.