For a generation of children, "Peter Pan" is less a tale about Captain Hook, Tinker Bell and a tick-tocking crocodile than it is about a blur in green tights. That blur, also known as the high-flying Cathy Rigby, has starred in J.M. Barrie's quintessential bedtime story on and off for more than 15 years. Now, the former Olympic gymnast is touring one last time before, as she puts it, "leaving the fairy dust to someone else."
The role of the boy who refused to grow up is a Broadway classic. An instant favorite when it was published in 1904, "Peter Pan" exploded again, gaining legions of pint-sized fans when it was reinvented as a splashy Broadway musical 50 years later. On the Great White Way, three women — the part was written for a woman and has traditionally been performed by one — are known for the role of Peter Pan in the musical version composed by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne.
Mary Martin originated the musical role in 1954 and is often associated with the show, though it ran a scant four months. "It didn't play long because it was sold in advance to television," explains musical-theater historian and Broadway.com columnist Ken Mandelbaum. He calls the TV version with Martin, broadcast annually à la "The Wizard of Oz," "a cultural event." Taking on the role has meant competing with her legacy.
"That's been Cathy Rigby's challenge," Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown notes. "Obviously, following somebody who is very famous for a role can be a burden."
Sandy Duncan also played the part on Broadway for 2 1/2 years. She managed to separate herself from the memory of Martin with her youthful energy. "She was wonderful: feisty, streetwise and very American," says Mandelbaum, "but her performance was never preserved. There's no cast album or video."
Rigby didn't make the same mistake. She has performed the show more than 2,500 times and created a host of promotional material, including a cast album and DVD. In addition to turning her Peter Pan into a profitable industry, Rigby made her mark on the role in another way.
"Obviously, I bring physicality to it," she says.
Indeed, the flying's the thing. "No one has flown with as much reckless abandon," insists Mandelbaum.
"It's spectacular — even under the restrictions of playing it on the road," says Brown.
Rigby credits her airborne antics to her athletic background. "I think part of the appeal of playing Peter Pan is risk-taking," she says.
But when Rigby's feet are on the ground, the critics aren't quite so adoring. "She doesn't have a Broadway background like [Martin and Duncan]," Mandelbaum says.
Nevertheless, children, not critics, are the audience members who count when it comes to "Peter Pan." Brown also notes that Rigby's innate niceness has contributed to her success with children. "She seems genuinely to care and that comes through in her performance," he says.
It's hard to guess who could match Rigby's energy, geniality and devotion to the role. Brown suggests the "athletic" and "gamine" Bebe Neuwirth, two-time Tony winner for "Sweet Charity" and "Chicago."
"On the other hand, she would be a really spicy Peter Pan," he observes.
Rigby herself does not make any projections, steering the conversation instead to how much she's loved the role.
She expects her final performance to be "like saying goodbye to part of my childhood."
When she finally flies off, a generation of children will say goodbye to part of theirs as well.