Cathy Rigby: Flying into the Fox Again

by Julie Bookman

Cathy Rigby takes the never-grow-up message of  “Peter Pan” seriously.
     At age 59, the former Olympic gymnast will fly into the Fox Theatre on Aug. 7 to gleefully crow and cackle and flip high in the air as the boy whose chief aim is to never grow old. Rigby herself gave up counting how many times she has performed as Peter Pan – but the best guess is about 3,000. She has played Peter since the late 1980s, in both Broadway revivals and touring productions.
    Never mind about that “farewell tour” five years ago, because Rigby decided she was not quite ready to slip out of those green tights. By the time this “final infinity home stretch” tour wraps up in April 2013, Rigby will be 60. The family musical based on J.M. Barrie’s classic tale will occupy the Fox through Aug. 12.
     “Doing it so many times has allowed it to be very clear and spontaneous for me,” Rigby told Atlanta Parent in a recent phone interview. “I know the material so well that I no longer have to think so much. That allows for so much more play and daring-ness and mischief in the role.”
   How can this mother (of four) and grandmother (of four) still make every performance fresh?
   “It’s new every night because I allow it to be new,” she said. “I’ve relaxed more in life now and I’m not as afraid to try something new and take risks. If anyone thinks I can’t jump off the cliff and make it to the other side, well, all I can say is: Just watch!”
  What does Rigby love most about the fantasy-adventure in which Peter whisks the three Darling children (Wendy, Michael and John) to Never Never Land, where they befriend Indians and fend off pirates?
   “Especially in the time of today, this show is just such a great escape,” she said. “It’s bittersweet, and yet there’s a wonderful sense of hope and adventure throughout. I also love that it’s politically incorrect – just so fun and honest.” Most of all, Rigby said she appreciates that “Peter Pan” has great capacity to mean “something different to everyone – whether you are a child or an adult. I know that parents, to an extent, are watching the show through their child’s eyes and are remembering how they felt as a kid – more carefree and daring, more selfish and spontaneous and emotionally available.”
   One specific moment later in the show springs to Rigby’s mind. It’s when Peter is wounded by Captain Hook and Wendy has flown off and he’s all alone. Peter says: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.’’ That’s a favorite line for Rigby because it exemplifies  “turning a horrible situation into one of hope. That’s a child’s way of thinking, and I think as adults we sometimes need to remember to think in those positive, hopeful ways because – well, why not?”
    Rigby at 15 became America’s sweetheart during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when she was the highest-scoring U.S. gymnast, and she went on to win a silver medal on the balance beam at the 1970 World Championships. For the past 30 years, she has been a musical comedy star, playing roles such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and the Cat in the Hat in Broadway’s Seussical the Musical. But Peter Pan remains her all-time favorite role.
   What she loves about playing the joyful, ageless boy wonder: “The thrill of seeing the faces of the children as I fly over their heads, sprinkling fairy dust, and having the chance to relive the adventure of a perfect make-believe childhood.”

 
    As we all move deeper into adulthood, Rigby reminds us that it’s possible to “still be a Peter Pan. We don’t always have to be too careful or so judgmental and critical.”
    Her grandchildren – who range in age from 5 months to 14 years – call her “Nana” (which also happens to be the name of the Darling children’s dog in the story). But Rigby was recently tickled with delight while working in her California garden one day before this tour began. Her 2-year-old grandson, “this little blond cherub,” toddled over to her as she was gardening and whispered to her: “Hi, Peter Pan.”
   That darn near melted her heart.

If You Go:

“Peter Pan”
The Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta
Aug. 7-12; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1:30 p.m.
Tickets: $25-$65; call 855-285-8499, or visit foxatltix.com. Get half-off tickets for Tues. and Wed. shows using the code “AJC.” Special rates for groups of 10 or more: 404-881-2000, to order tickets click here. For more information on Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan, click here