A performance that quite clearly and deeply and completely defines the role. A performance that shows you aspects and details of the character that were beyond your imagination before, yet which are profoundly true—and, as you now realize, are necessary. A performance that makes your heart grow to twice its usual size. Such a performance was given at the Peabody Opera House when Cathy Rigby appeared as Peter Pan.
Miss Rigby, of course, leapt to fame at fifteen when she became the first American to win the gold medal in World Gymnastics. She went on the next year to be given eight gold medals in the 1968 Olympics—and she became America’s athletic sweet-heart.
Well, she clearly learned perfection as a child (on the balance beam her father built for her in the back yard). And perfection has clung to her. After eighteen years on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” she re-invented herself: she dived into seven intensive years of training in voice and acting—and emerged as a truly top talent in musical theatre.
She’s been playing Peter, off-and-on, since at least as early as1987, when she played it at our MUNY. But she’s also had many other roles—everything from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Mammy Yokum in Li’l Abner. In 1991 she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in a revival of "Peter Pan".
But in 1997 she and her husband, Tom McCoy, produced their own version of "Peter Pan". It was based on the 1954 Jerome Robbins classic, but in many ways was far truer to J. M. Barrie’s original play. I saw that production at the Fox in 1999, and the writing essay current production, directed by Glenn Casale, is, as-near-as-dammit, identically wonderful.
If your only acquaintance with Peter Pan is with the old musical (or, heaven forbid, the Disney version) then you don’t really know the boy at all. Barrie’s play is awash in the yearnings and dreams of childhood. In this play, as Barrie said, “all of the characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child’s outlook on life as their only important adornment.” In this world fathers act like children, and children play at being mothers and fathers. All we boys have daring adventures battling pirates and Indians—until those sweet Wendy’s among us—mothers and wives—assume the calm, loving, necessary responsibility of transforming us into civilized men.
This production captures all that winsome beauty that Barrie’s genius gives us.
Moreover, in its physical aspects this production is gorgeously, conventionally theatrical. The mechanics are not visibly different from those used when the play premiered in London in 1904. The “flying” is done with barely-visible cables wielded by two strong stage-hands. The scenery is large and richly detailed and real—not projected. When set changes are needed a “carpenters’ scene” is played in front of a dropped scrim—which afterwards fades to transparency and disappears. In the newly refurbished, newly gilt old Peabody Opera House all this fits wonderfully. And (all too rare these days) there is a large full, live orchestra!
Cathy Rigby, as Peter Pan, is every inch a boy. She bristles with Y-chromosomes. Her every fiber is filled with that boyish restless physical curiosity that leaves no stone un-kicked, no knick-knack un-toyed-with. In a touch of genius, she gives Peter the voice of child of the London streets. She makes Peter at quick turns brave, brash, teasing, taciturn, playful poutish, laughing—and lonely.
And she flies with joyous abandon—swooping across the stage with the breathless speed of a bird, then touching a side drape just enough to give herself a brisk helicopter spin on the return flight. She can leap into the air of the nursery, sail ‘cross the room and land lightly and precisely on the mantle-piece. You will weep with joy (well, I did) as Peter and the children fly off through that deep, vast sky filled with diamond-bright stars. At curtain call Peter sweeps out over the audience, sprinkling us all with fairy dust.
One of the brightest additions that this McCoy/Rigby production brings is the exhilarating dance of the lost boys and the Indians. It’s a real show-stopping powerhouse, with Peter and Tiger Lily beating out ravishing rhythms on tom-toms. It’s as invigorating as anything in Stomp!
Captain Hook and Mr. Darling are played with great style by Brent Barrett. Kim Crosby is quite perfect as the dear, loving Mrs. Darling. Krista Buccelato is a sweet, lovely Wendy and Lexy Baeza and Sophie Sooter are charming indeed as Wendy’s brothers. The stunningly energetic Jenna Wright makes a wonderfully lithe, lissome, leggy Tiger Lily.
The roles of Peter and Capt. Hook have been perpetual magnets for great stars. Peter has been played by everyone from Maude Adams to Maggie Smith, Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan. In 1936 Elsa Lanchester played Peter to Charles Laughton’s Hook. Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff played the roles in a 1950’s version with words and music by Leonard Bernstein. (And in 1913 a thirteen-year-old Noël Coward played the lost boy, Slightly.)
Cathy Rigby is tiny. At 4’11” she’s the smallest person on stage (except for little Michael). J. M. Barrie, who stood just five feet tall, once remarked, “Six Foot three inches—if only I had really grown to this I would have not bothered turning out reels of printed matter.”
Perhaps Ms. Rigby’s focus and drive were partly in compensation for that tiny stature. If so we are all the beneficiaries of her urge for perfection, for she most certainly gives us that in her wonderful portrayal of Peter Pan.
Her performance bursts with a tumbling, prancing, joyous, boyish, endlessly energetic athleticism.
Alas, after this year’s tour, Cathy Rigby will retire from the role. She is, after all, sixty years old.