BWW Interviews: Cathy Rigby Takes Final Flight as 'PETER PAN'

By: Apr. 23, 2013

Performances and Tickets:

April 23-28, Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets are priced from $38.75-$89.75 and are available online at or by calling 866-348-9738.

Cathy Rigby has been a cultural icon ever since becoming the first American woman to win a medal in the World Gymnastics Championships at the age of 17. A two-time U.S. National Gymnastics Champion and the highest-scoring American gymnast in the 1968 Summer Olympics, Rigby almost single-handedly popularized the sport in America - a sport previously dominated by Eastern Europeans.

Today, the seemingly ageless Rigby (she is now 60 years young) has become synonymous with yet another ageless cultural icon: the boy who won't grow up, Peter Pan. Her very first outing in the role was in 1974, at the age of 20, in a theater in the round. Since then she has performed in many musicals, including The Wizard of Oz, Annie Get Your Gun, Meet Me in St. Louis, Paint Your Wagon, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Seussical the Musical on Broadway in 2002. But none have defined her as Peter Pan has. For the past 23 years, the Tony Award-nominated actress has been "flying, flying, flying, flying, way up high, in the sky" on tour, on Broadway, and in an Emmy Award-winning A&E movie version that is, thankfully, available on DVD.

The current touring production, the Carolyn Leigh/Moose Charlap musical adaptation based on the James M. Barrie play with additional music and lyrics by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a spectacular adventure that features dazzling sets, colorful costumes, intricate lighting and special effects that are at once eye-popping and fanciful. The tour co-stars Brent Barrett as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook and Kim Crosby as Mrs. Darling. It is once again directed by Glenn Casale, Tony Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning director of the 1999 Broadway revival and television special. Flying sequences are choreographed by "The Fly Guy," Paul Rubin.

In a recent telephone interview with, Rigby shared her thoughts about bringing this important chapter in her life and career to an end. She credits Peter with helping her grow as a person and actress, growing up perhaps, but certainly never growing old.

Excerpts from that conversation follow:

BWW: I understand that this is your farewell tour and Boston is going to be your last stop.

Cathy: Yes, it is the very last stop and an end to an important part of my career. I have done many shows but I've done Peter Pan for more than 35 years. It's interesting because Boston is actually where we started our touring. It was at the Colonial Theater in 1989. We had planned just a three-month tour, but as it happened the lead reviewer in Boston, Kevin Kelly, gave us a rave. He ended up giving us two years on that first tour! So it's amazing to be coming back to Boston, especially at such a difficult time for the city. I'm just happy to be bringing something to children that's a little hopeful and positive. I'm so sorry for what has happened to your city.

BWW: Thank you. It's nice that you are looking forward to bringing some joy back to people. That's one of the things that theater can do, isn't it?

Cathy: Sure! This past year I've done the show for a charity I'm involved with called Discovery Arts, and when I go out into the lobby after the show I sign posters and sprinkle some fairy dust on the kids. I've met more people from all walks of life, kids and families with physical or mental challenges, who come by and make donations. When the kids get their fairy dust they show this indomitable spirit and hopefulness. I think children in general believe that anything is possible. Like Peter, they believe that the world is a great place and that they can do anything. That spirit is probably the greatest gift I take away from doing this show.

BWW: I grew up in your generation, watching the Mary Martin special. It was on TV every year the same as "The Sound of Music" and "The Wizard of Oz." I have a vivid memory of being four or five years old sitting on the floor in front of our tiny TV screen, within six inches of it, crying my eyes out saying, "I believe, I believe, I believe." And when Tinkerbell came back to life, I remember feeling like I did that.

: That's true! When I say to the kids, "Thank you so much for your help in saving her," that's what I get now! People who remember what they felt like when they were children now bring their children or grandchildren. I have people who cry, older gentlemen and grandmothers who share their stories. Peter Pan is unique that way. Of all the shows that were on at that time, it doesn't grow old because we all still have that innocence of youth, that passion and enthusiasm inside. We remember what it was like to believe everything was possible and to look forward to what's next. Whatever tragedy there is in the world, kids manage to turn it around and find a way to get through things.

BWW: Take me back to your childhood. You were so disciplined. You spent so many hours in training. What has this show done for you personally, perhaps to give you a second childhood?

Cathy: In my childhood, especially when I started gymnastics, you couldn't drag me out of the gym. It was as if I were in Neverland, as if I could play and have these great adventures, learning great moves and flipping around. It was just like flying, it really was. But after my first Olympics it did become very pressured and disciplined. I trained six-to-eight hours a day, six days a week. I still loved it but it became something much different. The stakes were higher, expectations were higher. Your life centers around one thing. As with Peter, who is all about staying young forever and doing anything he imagines, there's something you lose. Peter gives up family. I gave up the chance to develop socially and the freedom of expression. I became robotic. I had to. You have to be fearless, you have to be unemotional, and that's fine when you're competing. But what Peter Pan has done for me is completely the opposite. Through him I can embrace anything, and I can speak out, and I can be mischievous and silly and playful and emotional. That has been a great learning process for me in life and as an actress.

I remember when I was first doing the role I got a review one time that said every "t" is crossed and every "i" is dotted, but it was as predictable as a balance beam routine. And I went, "Oh, that's great because I'm perfect, but it's the complete antithesis of Peter Pan. Peter is spontaneous; he's adventuresome; he doesn't plan; he just does." It was then that my perception about playing the role changed. It was a great lesson about being in the moment. I learned to allow the spontaneity to be there. I don't think so much anymore.

BWW: I saw the production down in Hartford a year ago during the holidays. I must tell you, watching you fly, my jaw dropped. Aside from the fact of your age - and really, you are ageless up there - you did more than just fly. You spun, you twisted, you somersaulted, and you flipped, all while speeding across the rafters. I mean, do you know how fast you go? Have you ever clocked it?

Cathy: We did clock it one time at about 20 mph, which is pretty fast when you are going back and forth across the stage and landing on set pieces. Plus we've added some new elements to the flying with the flipping and spinning. I've known the two gentlemen I fly with for so long that we anticipate each other, adding variety and being very creative. It's like having a figure skating partner. I think that is what I'll miss the most.

BWW: Have you seen the revival of Pippin yet?

Cathy: No, I have not. I've never seen it live, actually.

BWW: Well, just to let you know. If they can ever pry the role of Berthe away from Andrea Martin, you should definitely get your name in there as a replacement.

Cathy: I will!

BWW: You know, now that I'm remembering the production of Peter Pan I saw a year and a half ago, I'm realizing there are similarities between it and the Pippin revival, in that you have also integrated acrobatics, gymnastics, and flying with the choreography.

Cathy: Well, just look at little boys when they are 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11. They jump, they spin, they're daring, they don't think. In fact, I have a little bit of a disclaimer on the fairy dust I give them. I always tell them to put a little piece under their pillow at night and Peter will come to fly with them when they fall asleep. And they have to go to bed on time. I don't want them to take the fairy dust and jump off something!

BWW: You know, it's funny you say that. When I was little I was a very daring kid. I was out climbing things I shouldn't be climbing. And I remember watching Peter Pan thinking, "I want to fly." But I was smart enough to know that it was fantasy and not reality. And so I would take running leaps toward my bed so that I wouldn't get hurt just in case.

Cathy: When I was little I tried to jump off the roof of my house hoping that my parents' bed sheet would open like a parachute. Yep, I would do stuff like that. And do you remember this? My Mom and Dad used to let us put dish detergent on the patio to create a Slip 'n' Slide. Can you imagine doing something like that now? I don't know how we survived.

BWW: I imagine you're going to have a little down time once this ends...

Cathy: Well, we have the La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts, so that keeps us busy mounting shows and producing tours. And we have the conservatory for kids where we teach master classes and such. But the most important thing I want to do right now is to go home and see my kids and my grandkids. It will be nice just to hang out for a while and enjoy the summer, having barbeques and being at the pool.

But then I'd love to do Dancing with the Stars next! I think it would be a hoot. I don't do ballroom dancing but I love it. My daughter-in-law did Swing in New York and I just fell in love with watching her. I think it would be great!

BWW: Well then, I will include that in my piece and maybe someone will see it and say, "Hey, yeah, that's a great idea!"

Cathy: Yes, Jan! You will be the one to get me on it! If that happens I will thank you profusely. It would be great. I'd love to do that!

BWW: So, what do you think you'll be feeling on that one last flight out over the audience in Boston on April 28?

Cathy: You know I just hope I can keep it together. Honestly, it's not that I'm sad - I've done everything I can with this role. I think it's the best it's ever been. But I don't want to be on the road touring any longer. Peter Pan is a part of me, so it's not like I feel I'll ever give it up. And I have so many pictures and memories that it's not like I will get lonely for it. But it's the 100s of cast members over the years and the audiences that I'll miss. And it's been a family affair, so I'll miss that part of it, too. My husband has produced the show over the years. Two of my children work here. My daughter is the head of wigs and hair on this production so she travels with me. My youngest was about three when we started doing this. Now she's 27. She used to watch the show backstage with her thumb in her mouth. When I'd come off the stage she'd say, "Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a boy like you!" I don't feel like it's ever going to end because we have the memories, but it is emotional. It's been a part of our lives for so many years. But like Wendy I am going back to my family now. It is a bit overwhelming that it's coming to an end, but I couldn't ask any more of this experience. It's been a brilliant, wonderful adventure. I don't know how many people my age have grandchildren who can say, "My nana is Peter Pan. It's so cool."

PHOTOS BY Isaac James: Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan; Brent Barrett as Captain Hook with Cathy Rigby; Krista Buccellato as Wendy and Cathy Rigby; Cathy Rigby and the Pirates; Jenna Wright as Tiger Lily;Cathy Rigby and the Lost Boys; Cathy Rigby and the ensemble of Peter Pan; Cathy Rigby and the Darling children