Were Frank Abagnale Jr. impersonating somebody today, he might be a Facebook subscriber hiding behind a phony photograph, or a scam artist promoting Bitcoin or a pyramid scheme. But 50 years ago, Abagnale was a teenager who successfully pretended to be an airline pilot, a pediatrician and a lawyer in Louisiana.
As a charming 16-year-old with a few prematurely gray hairs, Abagnale put on the mantle of a grown man and kited personal checks for millions of dollars he used to pay for hotels, restaurants, automobiles, houses and luxury items — virtually undetected.
"People were more open to believing then," says Michelle Taylor, director of the musical Catch Me If You Can at Jefferson Performing Arts Society. "I can Google anyone's name now." That's true, but the internet still might not yield correct answers.
Abagnale's story about striking out on his own after his parents filed for divorce was captured in the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The Broadway musical rendition that opened in 2011 was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The real-life Abagnale quickly learned that jobs he could get without a high school diploma wouldn't redeem his family. Instead, he chose a more glamorous profession. He convinced a Pan American World Airways manager that a dry cleaner had misplaced his pilot's uniform and was promptly fitted for a new suit. In a time before Photoshop, he used a decal from a model airplane to make a believable employee identification badge and picked up enough industry jargon in the terminal to fly millions of miles in the jump seat. Bounced checks eventually put the FBI on his trail, so Abagnale chose a new alias and profession to continue his adventure.
"It feels like you are on a roller coaster with all the twists and turns," Taylor says of the story behind the musical. "It's predictable at moments, but every time you think you know where it's going, it takes a turn."
Although essentially an adventure, Catch Me If You Can ultimately is a tale about second chances. Tulane University junior Anthony Harvey is cast in the lead, and stage veteran Jimmy Murphy plays Carl Hanratty, the determined FBI agent who chases Abagnale. The pair discover a strange camaraderie through their lonely pursuits.
Abagnale was captured by French police and spent years in prisons, but the musical, set in the 1960s, brims with ebullient pop songs and giggling flight attendants, hospital nurses and Southern belles. Karen Hebert's choreography creates upbeat, splashy dance sequences accompanied by Dennis G. Assaf's swinging orchestra.
One of the play's central challenges is portraying an international con artist in a sympathetic light. Harvey had the opportunity to hear the real Abagnale speak at an AARP conference in New Orleans last summer. Reformed and now one of the FBI's most prominent authorities on forgery and embezzlement, Abagnale repents his unethical behavior. But at the time, he says, he was only trying to survive. "All 16-year-olds are just children," he told the audience, adding that even while living the high life, he cried himself to sleep until he was 19.