“We just won’t grow up, will we?” I ask Cathy Rigby at the top of a deja vu chat we originally had in 1990 when she spent her first Christmas on Broadway as James M. Barrie’s highest-flying fantasy, Peter Pan.
In the interim eight years -- while I have been prosaically pushing verb to noun and she has been soaring to theatrical heights and rafters -- a brand new bumper crop of playgoers who’ll say they believe by gleefully clapping their hands on cue has sprouted up. Now, Rigby’s back at the Marquis Theatre for the year-end harvesting.
"It’s very difficult to let go of Peter Pan," she’s quick to confess. "I don’t know of any other show that I’ve ever done that I enjoy any more than this. I never tire of it."
There have been other roles -- Molly Brown, Dorothy Gale, Nellie Forbush, Annie Oakley -- but Peter Pan was the first and most frequent and, in the long run, maybe the most lasting. She has logged up plenty of frequent flyer miles in 1,500 performances spread over a dozen different productions and 22 years.
Of all the actresses who’ve played Barrie’s "eternal boy" (now 96 years old and holding), Rigby comes to the role uniquely qualified by her ability to fly through the air with the greatest of ease and the elan of a great athlete. A two-time Olympic gymnast, she brought home the gold eight times, won four other international medals and became the first American woman to get a medal in the World Gymnastics competition. ABC-TV’s "Wide World of Sports," on its 25th anniversary show, acknowledged her contribution to World Class athletics by naming her among America’s Most Influential Women in Sports. But can she sing? Well, happily, yes. And dance. And, as noted, fly. Peter Pan got her airborne theatrically, but Rigby did her homework and her music lessons and has evolved from sports celeb to splendidly persuasive performer who no longer apologizes for the backstage door she flew in through.
"David Patrick Stearns of USA Today and I were talking one day, and he said, ‘This is such a different version. The last time you went out with this production, there was a sense you needed to prove you were a gymnast who could sing. It permeated the whole show-- that ‘Please accept I know how to do this.’ This time, there’s not that sense. You just play the part.”
Of course, nothing builds a girl’s confidence in performing a part better than getting a Tony nomination for it. In 1991 Rigby found herself attending the Tony ceremonies as an honest-to-gosh contender. "It felt like going to the Olympics again -- and waiting for your score a very long time," she recalls. "There was a kind of peace that came with that nomination. You’ve worked and studied for many years -- and now you belong. As much as you fight that feeling and say, ‘Even if it didn’t happen, I still know I worked hard and I know what my level is,’ there is a validation to it. There is an acceptance, and it feels great."
This little Tony vote of confidence was not enough to upset Lea Salonga’s Miss Saigon win, but it did give Rigby license to explore new areas of Peter Pan. "It allows you to go into different territories, to take risks, to bring more of your own self out in the character because you know there is that character inside of you -- very much so, in my case. It’s one of those things where you just know it works. It’s not as if you meditated for hours beforehand in hopes that you can do this the right way. You put away all the fears and need for acceptance, and you just are that character."
By design, Peter Pan permits Rigby to be a kid again -- something she really wasn’t very good at the first time around. Growing up a gymnast may seem like a playful proposition, but it wasn’t a great way to go through girlhood, she now realizes. "When I was doing gymnastics, it was not a childhood that a normal child would have," she remembers. "It was very strict. For the most part, you learned to stuff any kinds of feelings you might have so they didn’t get in the way of how you performed. With Peter Pan, it’s just the opposite. It’s the ability for me to go back -- eight times a week -- and be a kid again and be spontaneous and be mischievous. There’s a great joy and satisfaction and fun in all that if you continue to grow with that role -- and you bring the audience in on that -- because, for many people, this is almost an extension for them to go back and be kids again.
"James Barrie captured the imagination and the attention of not only children but adults. That’s the appeal of his story. It really does pull at the heartstrings, particularly for adults. The children are obvious. They kinda get it before the adults. What adults don’t expect is that it will touch them in the way it does.
"Especially this production. This is very different from the last production we did. It’s darker, deeper, less cartoony, more streamlined. Our director, Glenn Casale, has taken each characterization and developed it to the next level. As much as the words have been streamlined, the fact is that each character has a depth. Paul Schoeffler, our Hook, is the most sinister, realistic and hilarious Captain Hook we’ve had on our tour. There’s almost a Captain Ahab sort of feel to it. And his sidekick, Smee -- Michael Nostrand -- the two of them work unbelievably well together and are very funny. I can’t say it’s not over-the-top at times because it is, but there’s a reality to them that makes them more interesting."
This production, like its predecessor, is co-produced by Rigby and her husband, Tom McCoy. They met along The Yellow Brick Road during her professional stage debut -- he was Tin Man to her Dorothy -- and they soon married. Now, they have two daughters (Theresa, 16, and Kaitlin, 13) to go with the two sons (Bucky, 23, and Ryan, 18) she had by her first marriage to former pro footballer Tommy Mason.
They also have a production company, McCoy/Rigby Entertainment, which produces programming for the 1,200-seat La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in California, and they’ve outfitted their current Peter Pan with West Coast talents they have worked with before—costume designer Shigeru Yaji, lighting designer Martin Aronstein, set designer John Iacovelli and choreographer Patti Colombo.
The latter gives the production a showstopper it didn’t have before, via "Ugg-a-Wugg," a dance between the Indians and the Lost Boys. ("She gives them drumsticks and a big base drum, and it’s almost like a seven-minute, syncopated Stomp routine.") And Rigby’s own rendition of the usually overlooked "Distant Melody" has been known to reduce card-carrying critics to tears. The other evergreens by an armada of songwriting veterans (Moose Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, Jule Styne and Betty Comden & Adolph Green) -- "I’m Flying," "I’ve Gotta Crow," "Neverland," "A Princely Scheme," "Tender Shepherd" -- have been tended with T.L.C.
The original 1954 book has been tweaked and tinkered with to bring it up to politically correct speed (the Indians are no longer referred to as "redskins," and their aggression against the Lost Boys has been dramatically justified). In one case, a vignette has been replaced by one from Barrie’s original novel.
Unlike previous Peter Pan s, the Olympic star always leaves ’em flying -- with more than a little help from ZFX Inc., the aerial handlers who rig Rigby and let her swoop deep into the audience, touching outstretched hands wherever she can and sprinkling fairy dust all over the place. "Even when they hear about it, people don’t expect it for some reason. You fly out over them, and they just scream."
It brings the show to a buoyant close, but Rigby feels there’s a poignant undertow to it all. "It’s almost the same feeling that a person has when their child graduates from high school and goes off into the world." But there’s no graduation in sight for Cathy Rigby, "Eternal Boy." At 45, she declines to say if this’ll be her last flight as Peter Pan. "I know I’m enjoying it now, but who knows? I stopped putting those kinds of limits on myself a long time ago. At this point in my life, I’m content. I have four kids. My husband and I, fortunately, work together. I’m very happy where I am. The only thing that I probably get negative about is that I don’t want it to end."
Read like a real Peter Pan.