Cathy Rigby, the high-flying, Tony Award-nominated star of multiple Broadway engagements of Peter Pan, was puttering in the garden in California when she got a phone call from New York letting her know she was needed in Whoville.
More precisely, the call was from Barry and Fran Weissler, SFX Theatricals and Universal Studios, the producers of Seussical, the family-friendly Broadway musical that has, from its start in November 2000, been in need of a star to help anchor the show.
"I got a call about seven days ago," Rigby told Playbill On-Line March 7. "After being on the road and in New York for a pretty long time with Peter Pan, I was at home and truly just enjoying my garden, my home, being with my family and not traveling."
She admitted she hasn't followed the travails of the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty tuner drawn from the works of kid-lit icon Dr. Seuss. "I've kind of isolated myself in my home, getting back to domestic things," she said. "They sent me the CD and I really enjoyed the music. I have four kids — they are older now — so it was intriguing, remembering all the Dr. Seuss books that I read to my children. It was interesting and inspiring. It sparked my curiosity."
Rigby steps into Seussical March 15 for an open run. David Shiner, the movement and mime artist who originated The Cat in the Hat role has come to an arrangement with the producers and will leave the show March 11, it was announced March 7. He will not return, a spokesman for the producers said. Shiner, who took knocks from the press and even from his producers for not being a polished musical comedy star, was more slick and confident as the run continued at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, according to industry observers, but it was too late for him in the mischievous role. With box office activity flat, the producers apparently couldn't resist hungrily seeking out other names, such as Rigby. Rosie O'Donnell took over the Cat role during Shiner's January-February vacation and the box office boomed. His standby is Bryan Batt, who will play the role March 14. Although Peter Pan and Seussical share common ideas, themes and the same playfulness, Rigby said she doesn't always seek out "family entertainment." She's played a variety of roles on tour, in stock and at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, where she and husband Tom McCoy are producers. The former champion Olympic gymnast was nominated for a Best Actress (Musical) Tony Award in 1991 for Peter Pan, and her acrobatic work was preserved in an A&E video version of the stage show — with the wires electronically erased. It has sold like hotcakes.
Since the week of Feb. 28, Rigby has been rehearsing Seussical with dance captains Joyce Chittick and Darren Lee, and working with choreographer Kathleen Marshall.
Will she bring her acrobatic physical ability to the role?
"I don't think you can help but do that," Rigby said. "One of the great things about this role is that while you keep the quality of The Cat in the Hat mysterious and impulsive and mischievous, there's lots of room for the physical."
She revealed that in the show's now somewhat famous opening image of a Seussian vortex, she will somersault down the slide to the audience — and she's got cartwheels and handstands up her sleeve later in the show.
"I swear, I'm just gonna take roles like this because it's so full of life and fun and joy," Rigby said. "Obviously, it's not as physical as Peter Pan. While The Cat in the Hat is very active, there are many times when he's just still. That's probably the hardest thing to do: Just stop and allow the moment to play without having to move. He watches a lot."
In rehearsal, Rigby is experimenting with the creative team on new bits and characterizations, and she intends to fly high again in the Act One curtain gimmick that pulls The Cat toward the fly space when the curtain mechanism "fails."
"That's about the only flying I'll do," she said. "That's not a problem. I'm trying to convince them to fly me [when the Cat plays the helicopter reporter], but they can't figure out how to do that."
Is Peter Pan behind her?
"I would love always to be a little boy and have fun," she said. "I do this stuff because I really love it. If there comes a time that I wanna put on the green tights again and play the part, I wouldn't hesitate to do it. At the moment I don't have plans for it."