Kids often dream of running away and going on a wild adventure, but Frank Abagnale, Jr. actually did. The story of how he spent years posing as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer while living a life of luxury thanks to forged checks was revealed in his book Catch Me If You Can. It was later turned into a major Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, and brought to Broadway as a musical several years later, earning 4 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical. The Eagle Theatre in Hammonton will take Frank's story to a new level when it presents a unique multimedia version of the play in January.
"What attracted me to Catch Me If You Can was an endless world of possibility," explained Ted Wioncek III, Co-Artistic Director of The Eagle Theatre who will direct the production. "Frank Abagnale Jr. fearlessly thrust himself into the world in this manner. We found that was the only way to approach this piece. Frank's way. To go headfirst into an incredibly ambitious piece.
"We sought to create a physical world that would mirror Frank's tactic of diversion, and simultaneously provide a playing space to capture the solidarity of loneliness, which we have found is the central thesis of this piece," continued Wioncek. "We have designed a set that twists, turns, and is in essence a three dimensional, black and white, chess board covered rubrics cube."
The production features the same music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that was created for the Broadway show, but the use of multimedia is a concept added by The Eagle Theatre. Through multimedia, Frank's story is retold as if it was a live television variety hour. The theatre is able to show scenes such as Frank creating fake IDs and badges and offer a glimpse into the home life of his separated mother and father — all important pieces to the story that otherwise would be missed.
Multimedia turns the production into an experience, something that is one of the mantras of The Eagle Theatre. "Catch Me If You Can exemplifies the core of the Eagle Theatre… Create an experience," explained Wioncek. "What is an experience? An experience is a moment in time when the senses align and work harmoniously to create a memory."
Eagle's production contains a cast of 18 and stars acclaimed actor Jeff Coon, well known in the Philadelphia theatre scene, as Carl Hanratty (the role played by Tom Hanks in the film). The role of Frank Abagnale, Jr. will be played by Adam Hoyak. This is Coon's first time in a production at The Eagle Theatre and Wioncek says they are honored to be working with him. "Every performance he turns in is crackling with boundless energy and startling poise. You add Jeff with the choreographer Dann Dunn, music direction by Trevor Pierce, and filmmaker Ian Kimble alongside our resident designers and it almost feels as though it's a project filled with a Rat Pack dream team!"
Coon says he was drawn to this production for two reasons. One, because he's excited about working with The Eagle Theatre and loves its goal of becoming a regional and national presence in Hammonton. The other is because he loves the story of Catch Me If You Can and thinks the play is not only wonderful, but underrated.
"This show didn't get a whole lot of attention when it played on Broadway and I think, having not seen that production but knowing something about it, that it collapsed a bit under its own weight," said Coon. "It was overproduced because it was supposed to be a 'Broadway musical'. It's a big show but the story is actually very specific to a small but extended family and more specifically, about the strange connection between the two main characters. I think the score does a great job of doing what they tried to overdo with the set on Broadway which is create the sound and feel of the early 60's. In this production, it's going to be very much about the story without losing any of the spectacular elements of the score."
Wioncek agrees. He says that while rereading the book and watching the movie countless times, he discovered the full depth of the story. "It tugs on the heartstrings, it's funny, it's charming… it really is a classic theatre piece," he said, noting that his creative staff bubbled over with innovative ideas, insights, and suggestions during production meetings.
The character of Carl Hanratty will undoubtedly evoke memories of Tom Hanks and that's fine with Coon. He says he won't try to emulate the performance of Hanks because he knows that's not what the audience wants, but he has recently rewatched the film to see how Tom approached the role. He noticed that the film tells parts of Frank's story that aren't in the musical but provide an excellent backstory for the actors. For Coon, the more information the better.
"I want to find my version of Hanratty which involves research and bringing my own life and experiences to the role. And, honestly, that's how I try to approach each and every role," said Coon.
Coon is also excited about the production's use of multimedia. He was part of a production of Parade at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia which relied heavily on a multimedia presentation and thinks its use is perfect for this story as well.
"[Multimedia] is one of the most exciting things about technology in the theatre these days," added Coon. "Technological abilities grow in leaps and bounds so quickly these days so that effects productions weren't able to achieve merely a year or two prior can now be easily tackled. Ted has a great vision for the technology he's going to employ in this production. The overarching theme of the show is that much of it plays out as if it were a early 60's television variety show so television is a big part of this production. Also, the ability of a camera to focus on a close up of a face or a prop to heighten the audience's attention in a way that can't always be done in the theatre is another really exciting aspect of the multimedia in this production. Ted and his team have worked for a long time (and continue to do so) on realizing their multimedia vision for this show and I think it's going to pay off extremely well."
Wioncek admits to admiring the use of multimedia. "We are undeniably addicted to the experimentation of multimedia and its ability to reshape the visceral quality of live theatre. Nothing will ever prove as evocative as two individuals on stage in the midst of conflict, but if multimedia can help accentuate that then we're all for it."
The Eagle Theatre is putting so much into this production that they are documenting the process for a video of the making of Catch Me If You Can for public access and social media.
"No one will be bored when they come to see this show. It'll be visually interesting and a lot of fun," said Coon. "I can't wait to share the story with audiences."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.