The Con is On at Arena Stage
February 28, 2022 @ 2:00pm
When does a con man become a con artist? Is it when their crimes reach a level of glamor that, despite their damages, they become the stuff of pop culture like Anna Sorokin and Simon Leviev? Before them, another fraudster fascinated the country: Frank Abagnale Jr., whose professed life of crime spawned a best-selling book, a glitzy Hollywood movie and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical “Catch Me if You Can.”
The musical — written by playwright Terrance McNally with music and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman — runs at Arena Stage March 4 to April 17. Billed as a “high-flying musical roller coaster,” it stars Broadway actor Christian Thompson as the central swindler and features choreography by Arena veteran Parker Esse.
In his 1980 book, Abagnale claims to have made millions of dollars impersonating a pilot, a doctor, a professor and a state attorney, all before he turned 20 in 1968. Even though the claims have since been disputed, and Abagnale has admitted he and his co-writer Stan Redding sensationalized events, the story of a jet-setting teenage flim flam man who charms everyone he meets holds tremendous appeal.
Thompson easily finds common ground with Abagnale.
“The funny thing is, he was an actor but in real life. I get the appeal of wanting to be other people, because I do it as a profession,” Thompson says with a grin.
“After the past few years, when we literally couldn’t escape our houses, the idea of being able to live larger than life, shedding one life for another, doing things you never dreamed of, is alluring,” he continues.
But the actor, who is also a trained dancer and choreographer, understands the darker side of such a life.
“There’s a line when he says ‘I’m really nobody.’ That’s the cost for him jumping in and out of these lies.”
The 1960s enticed both Thompson and Esse. The actor spent a lot of time imagining the decade when he made his Broadway debut as Smokey Robinson in the Temptation’s 2019 bio-musical, “Ain’t Too Proud,” which closed in January 2022 after a Covid-paused run.
“The ’60s are such a good time period,” Thompson asserts. “There was such an explosion of music, style and dance. I’m enjoying the swagger.”
Esse knows the era well through its legendary choreographers.
“The show is a love letter to 1960s styles. It’s a chance for me to dig back into my roots and pay homage to the forefather of jazz [dance], Jack Cole. He built a style that others took as their base and made their own, like Jerome Robbins, Michel Kidd, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennet and Alvin Ailey. You’ll see essences of [them] in my work, all through my own interpretation.”
Esse studied Cole’s style of theatrical jazz dance and spent two years on Broadway in “Fosse.”
Bringing the ‘60s swagger and style to techni-color life is an entire company of actors, dancers, designers and Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith. Thompson and Esse are head over heels for everyone involved in the show.
“There’s no weak link in this cast,” Thompson says. “We’ve got legends like Stephanie Pope Lofgren, Nehal Joshi and Jeff McCarthy. The ensemble is filled with some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. They make what seems impossible look very easy.”
Making it look easy requires a lot of work and collaboration, which Esse calls “the best feeling ever.”
His joy is apparent when he describes working with director Molly Smith — with whom he has worked on well over a dozen musicals with at Arena, including recent productions of “Anything Goes” and “Newsies” — on storytelling, discussing on how dancers can use the ever-changing set with set designer Alexander Dodge, and how costumer Alejo Vietti’s design of a sequined nurse’s uniform inspired how the characters move.
Pulling off such an extravagant story requires a lot of preparation. The show will perform in Arena’s Fichandler Stage “in the round,” with audience members on all four sides of the stage.
“It’s the closest stage representation of real, four-dimensional life,” Esse shares. “The choreography has no ‘front.’ There’s no hiding. You cannot turn away from the audience, only to another group of people.”
There’s also the all backstage “choreography” of countless entrances and exits and set and costume changes which must be mapped out to the step.
When asked what he is learning from the show, Thompson uses a familiar word.
“The confidence of knowing you can do whatever is put in front of you,” Thompson says. “Frank Jr.’s mindset is ‘Challenge accepted.’ He’s my first professional lead role, so I say ‘Challenged accepted’.”
“Catch Me If You Can” runs at Arena Stage March 4 through April 17. For tickets and more information, click here.
Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org // @arenastage
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