Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan. At 60, she flies across the stage with as much zeal as she did when she first played the role 39 years ago in a 1974 theatre-in-the-round production fresh from retiring from a historic gymnastic career. She won a silver medal on the balance beam in the 1970 Olympics and was the first American woman to win a medal at the World Gymnastics Championships. She is currently starring again as the boy who won't grow up, Peter Pan, at the Pantages Theatre January 15-January 27.
So how did she go from the balance beam to flying across the stage?
Photo: Michael Lamont
"Nowadays, everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up. I knew I wanted to get married, and have kids, and I did that, but I didn't know after gymnastics what I wanted to be. People offered me bit parts in TV sitcoms and commercials, and I knew this was something I could do. I began to study acting and theatre, and then the role came along. I've been flying ever since," she told me before her Pantages performances.
Even in commercials she broke the mold. She was the first female celebrity to endorse a feminine hygiene product, StayFree Maxi Pads, in the mid 1970s.
The story of Peter Pan, first produced as a play December 27, 1904 at the Duke of York Theatre in London written by J.M.Barrie holds up over time and strikes chords so relevant in today's youth obsessed society. Not much about the play's staging has changed over 109 years, and yes, there is some dated imagery (the Indians, Tiger Lily... very stereotypical but it was the early turn of the century when imagined) but the deep, underlying themes of Barrie's play are still there. And it's not all light and happiness. Peter kills Pirates with impunity, he manages the Lost Boys (in the original text by Barrie he actually thins the herd at times) and there's the slight issue of abducting children to bring them to NeverLand.
In fact, Barrie's life was more a Greek tragedy than a play for kids and adults alike. When he was six, his older brother of 13 died in a skating accident. His mother never got over it, and her only consolation was that her son would be 13 forever; in other words, he grew up with a ghost brother that never aged. Barrie himself remained childlike, growing to be only five feet tall, which he reached by 17. He moved from Scotland to London and married an actress, by all accounts, unhappily. One day in Kensignton Gardens he encountered two little boys and their nanny. The boys were George and Jack, sons of Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies. He would go on to meet Sylvia Davies at a dinner party in 1897 and soon became a member of the family himself. The Davies had another baby, named Peter. Barrie was fond of George, and to make him happy he would tell stories about Peter. Soon, the stories were about Peter flying about and having a ball. The Davies had two more children, Michael and Nico and Barrie is quoted in his writings as saying, ""I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together," he once wrote, "as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you." He named him after the Greek God Pan, with young Peter's first name in homage.
Krista Buccellato as Wendy/Photo: Isaac James
Two years after Peter Pan debuted, Arthur Davies, the father, died of cancer. Two years after that, Barrie divorced his own wife. Just a few months after his divorce, the boy's mother, Sylvia died as well, leaving all five boys to Barrie's care. Times haven't changed much, and children can still be cruel. The boys were mocked because of the way they were depicted in the play, and Peter Davies himself once referred to the play as "that terrible masterpiece." George Davies died in World War I, a few years later, Michael drowned at Oxford in what some have speculated was a suicide. And Barrie himself came under criticism for his penchant for hanging around small boys, but everyone that knew him, including the children, said that couldn't be further from the truth. There are no accounts of any lines ever being crossed.
But while his life may have been filled with tragedy and ghosts, the play was, and is, a success. The Pantages was filled with young and old alike, each getting something new, something magical, something wonderful. Technology has come a long way, and Tinkerbell, the defiant, stubborn faerie, illuminated the stage, darting about as a hologram every now and again. The cast was spot-on, from the youngest (two members are under 21) to the top (Rigby, being 60).
Brent Barrett as Hook/Photo: Isaac James
It's a long tradition that the father in the play also play Captain Hook. Brent Barrett is perfect in both roles, adding life and vibrance to Hook, Peter's nemesis and all-around villain. Jenna Wright as Tiger Lily has a body and a half, and her aerial gymnastics bring the dancing to a new level. Krista Buccellato as Wendy, Peter's crush, mother to the Lost Boys and all-around mother figure in the play goes from teenager to grown woman, never losing the wonder.
Jenna Wright as Tiger Lily/Photo: Isaac James
But it is Rigby who is the star, and as such, delivers at the ripe young age of 60, like Peter, never growing up, never giving in, always the instigator, cantankerous, child-like. She flies with ease, and appears to be having a ball doing it.
"It's been a wonderful time of my life, playing Peter," she went on. "I thought I could leave him behind, but he's a part of me, that character. Living in NeverLand many nights a week isn't a bad place, maybe it's given me new vision. And the stories, the kids, the adults. People come to the play and they say to me they want to fly, too. Kids that just had four rounds of chemo or some other challenge, wanting to soar, to be a part. It's such a gift to bring them joy, to bring them Peter," she continued.
Like Barrie, Rigby's life has been no bed of roses. She injured herself prior to her last olympics and thus didn't medal. She divorced, but later remarried to Mr. McCoy, to whom she is still married. She publicly fought an eating disorder, bulemia, for 12 years and now speaks about eating disorders, nutrition and health. She encountered hard time, and had to return to the role to get something going again. But what a return. She's been nominated for the Tony for her theatrical hijinks and continues to gather positive reviews.
Along the way she opened the McCoy Rigby Conservatory of the Arts in Yorba Linda, CA. It's a place for young people to go and discover the arts.
"Arts are so vital," she added. "I didn't plan on opening this, but when the chance came along my husband and I jumped at it. To watch the kids explore, grow, challenge themselves through the arts, it's nothing short of miraculous. And while many won't go on to be a Broadway star or professional entertainer, the Arts add so much to a chid's development that we must keep them accessible to all," she concluded.
In all these years, I've never seen the play. I simply thought, well, it's for kids, why do I need to go. Boy, was I wrong. Because there's a kid in all of us. There's the part of us that is still the young person with the dreams, the hopes, the raw emotion that is the joy of living and of discovery, the part that still wants the great adventure. As Peter says in the play when he thinks he's dying, "Dying shall be such a remarkable adventure..." I know I'm still that wide-eyed boy, watching a play or movie, hoping one day to be on the stage or screen. And while I've lived part of the dream, the little boy inside cries out for adventure, for more, to truly soar.
Cathy Rigby brings Tinkerbell back from drinking poison with the help of the audience. /Photo: Isaac James
Six or 60 it doesn't matter, Peter Pan is a timeless story written to entertain a family of small children that now has entertained millions of them. If Barrie could see the play now, know how it has touched so many, it might bring some light in to a life that so desperately needed it. And doesn't each of ours. Come on, clap your hands, I do believe in faeries still (watch it!), do you? And we can all soar in our dreams, in our hearts, in our lives if we just surround ourselves with happy thoughts, thoughts that bring us joy, we can, in fact, find our way to NeverLand.
Follow Charles Karel Bouley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therealkarel