Following a limited engagement in Seattle, Cathy Rigby will play Sacramento this month in the new touring production of the Carolyn Leigh/Moose Charlap/Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical Peter Pan, based on J. M. Barrie's beloved 1902 classic, and it will represent a special homecoming of sorts.
After all, it was on the stage of the Sacramento Music Circus that the former Olympic gymnast made her stage debut in 1981, singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in front of 3,000 people. A gutsy move? You bet. But then you don't get to the Olympics, as she did in Mexico City in 1968 and in Munich in 1972, without having nerves of steel, vaulting ambition and extraordinary discipline. You would think that she could relax in the relatively less competitive world of theatre. But now she's competing against herself and, by her own admission, her perfectionism is as keen as ever.
"I guess that, too, goes back to my days as a gymnast where being off 1/100 of a point could move you from first place to third place," she said as she was about to return to a role that had been made famous by Mary Martin and played by Sandy Duncan and which she first assayed in a major Broadway revival and tour in the 1990-1991 season. Even though she's played the role more than 1,500 times‹perhaps more than anybody else in history‹she added that she still has a lot to learn.
"We really want to bring out the emotional colors and reality of a piece that's pretty dramatic and dark," she said of the new production, which she and her husband, Tom McCoy, will be co-producing with the Nederlander Organization and local presenters. (There will also be a new cast album to be released later this year.) "We don't want to indulge in the sentimentality of a work that has Peter avoiding anything that might be painful in his life. After all, 'the Peter Pan syndrome' came from this story. We've made it as real as we could within Barrie's fantasy."
Growing up a tomboy‹the middle child of five‹in Southern California, Rigby said that she had no problem with the gender switch of playing Peter and has four children of her own, aged ten to nineteen, whose early years clued her into the "unthinking" nature of being a boy. "One minute, they're very disciplined, the next there's a brawl," she said with a laugh. "You don't try to act like a boy, you just are. My husband says I become very butch after a while."
Rigby has had a satisfying and lucrative career since she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going on to win rave reviews in tours of Annie Get Your Gun, Paint Your Wagon, South Pacific and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. After a life of remarkable discipline and fierce competition in gymnastics, the theatre is affording her the opportunity to relive her childhood. "In gymnastics everything is very stoic," she explained. "You don't deal with feelings, and that leads to a lot of dysfunctional behavior. With theatre the release of emotions and spontaneity actually helps you. It's great therapy."