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Rigby returns to high-flying, adored title role in ‘Peter Pan’

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Cathy Rigby flies high above the Community Center Theater stage in the Broadway Sacramento presentation of “Peter Pan.”

Did the kids balk at the gifts they found under the tree? It’s not too late to be a Christmas hero, and the best part is that there are no maniacal malls to brave.

“Peter Pan,” starring the former Olympic gymnastics star Cathy Rigby, flies into Sacramento’s Community Center Theater Wednesday, Dec. 26, for a five-day, Broadway Sacramento-presented run that’s sure to erase any memories of a disappointing yuletide haul consisting of underwear and socks.

Rigby, who first played the boy who wouldn’t grow up in a 1974 regional theater production before earning a 1990 Tony nomination for her subsequent Broadway performance as Pan, recently took time out to talk about her love for the part and why she’s back in the air at 60 after having said goodbye to the role in a 2004-05 “farewell” tour.

“I missed doing it,” said Rigby, who co-helms the company (with husband Tom McCoy) that’s producing the current national tour that’s officially billed as “Cathy Rigby Is Peter Pan." “It’s the most amazing show – it keeps you young and in shape. When the idea was brought up, I said, ‘What the heck? I’ll do it again if I’m believable – if I can do it as well or better.’”

Rigby, who said she didn’t want to disappoint any theatergoers who might have seen an earlier incarnation, threw herself into training for a return to Never Never Land like, well, like an Olympic athlete going for the gold. “I got myself a Pilates trainer and worked very hard,” she said. “The only thing I took out that I used to do, was a jump from the dog house to a bed. I’m actually flying more – this incarnation is actually more physical than it was.

“I wear a double harness for the flying, I dance as much as before and perform handsprings – I’ve surprised myself.”

“Flying” – the stage art of rigging performers in harnesses and either mechanically or manually lifting and maneuvering their airborne forms across the stage and/or audience has always been one of the most memorable elements of “Peter Pan” productions. It’s made the news in the past year or so due to the accidents suffered by cast members of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Rigby, who’s seen the show, draws distinctions between the highly mechanized, tech-heavy “Spider-Man” musical and “Peter Pan,” which leans on old-school ways of “flight controllers” Jimmy Little and Paul Rubin manipulating her take-offs and landings.

That’s not to say that making magic happen in “Pan” is completely free of risk.

In her recent run of “Pan” in Houston, Rigby was wielding a sword during a high-flying battle scene between Peter and Captain Hook when an errant thrust deflected off of a crow’s nest set piece and grazed her head – resulting in a cut that required 10 stitches.

But such incidents are rare in Rigby’s production of “Pan,” whose appeal isn’t based on the thrill of potential catastrophe, but on the wonder of J.M. Barrie’s storybook tale of Peter’s heroic derring-do versus the inept evildoing of Hook (Brent Barrett).

It’s an enchanted, thoroughly alluring formula that seems to appeal not only to each new generation of theatergoers, but for Rigby herself.

“It’s two hours a night of spontaneity and mischief for me as I watch these little boys in the audience just take in the adventuresome spirit of the show,” said Rigby. “They’re fascinated by everything. One moment they’re very quiet, the next minute they’re cheering. I love all those qualities about children. For many of them, it’s their first time in a theater and it’s wonderful to become part of that memory of theirs. Then there are the audience members who were kids themselves when they first saw the show. Now they’re bringing their own children to the show and they’re watching it through their children’s eyes and remembering.”

Rigby’s own youthful memories aren’t full of evenings in the theater, but of repetitive gymnastics exercises on balance beams and padded gym floors.

“I started with ballet at 7,” she said. “I was one of those active kids who jumped on everything. I was introduced to gymnastics when I was 10 and taking a recreation program.”

Though many kids start earlier, Rigby said being a very physical child who would spend hours on her neighborhood playground’s swinging rings and monkey bars performing “death drops” into the sandbox served her well in preparation of the formal training she would soon undertake.

“I used to have my parents take the sheets off my bed and jump off things holding those sheets like a parachute,” she said. “I was fearless – and you need to be fearless to work on a 4-inch-wide apparatus – it’s kind of precarious.”

The sport became an all-consuming passion for Rigby who said her training schedule didn’t leave time for other interests. The closest she came to the world of musical comedy, she said, was a middle-school field trip to a local theater’s production of “West Side Story,” and practicing routines at the gym to the soundtrack of Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”

Still, the seed was planted, and she still fondly recalls her live-theater excursion.

“It was the most magical recreational trip I’d ever taken – I loved the singing,” she said. “But I never considered it as a career.”

For one, there just wasn’t time to consider future careers. Rigby said she would spend as many as six hours a day training in anticipation of her first Olympics in 1968.

The dedication paid off, as she left the Mexico City games as the highest-scoring American gymnast. An injury hampered her 1972 results and she retired from competition soon thereafter.

Among those who came calling to capitalize on the Olympian’s notoriety were regional theater producers wanting Rigby for a new production of “Peter Pan” that would feature a more athletic Peter, as well as Sacramento’s Music Circus where her performance as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” served as an audition of sorts for the producers at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre.

She would also accept a variety of TV offers that would cast her in guest-star spots in “The Six-Million Dollar Man,” “Police Woman,” and “The Hardy Boys Mysteries,” among other series.

”I usually played a part in which I would have an accent, which was fine,” Rigby said. “I had been around girls from around the world and picked up their accents. I was on familiar ground – it wasn’t much of a stretch. But it was very cool, and the stars of those shows – like Lee Majors – were very kind and helpful.”

These early acting experiences proved successful and personally satisfying enough that they whet Rigby’s appetite for more, and she began working toward raising her game to a world-class level with a spate of acting and singing lessons that she would continue for seven years while acting in and producing a variety of musical-theater shows.

“I didn’t just want to be considered as someone who sings really well ‘for a gymnast.’ Plus, I didn’t want to take a role away from someone who really could perform – I wanted to be judged on the same level as any other actress.”

“At first, the thought of ever standing on stage was impossible,” she said. “But I understood how to train; the voice, like an other muscle in the body, is something you have to exercise.”

Rigby returned to “Pan” in a 1989 national tour, earning rave reviews and a subsequent stint on Broadway that garnered her a Tony Award nomination.

“Broadway for me was like the Olympics of theater,” said Rigby. “But it’s truly a team effort and I loved it. It was really magical to be able to get to that level and gain the acceptance of the theater community.”

Rigby is not opposed to saying that she might well fly again after the current tour closes its 20-city run in Boston next April.

“There’s this freedom with this role to change it up,” said Rigby. “I love the flying, I love the touring. I love getting to know this group of people in the cast and crew who become family.

“You do what you love.”


WHAT: California Musical Theatre’s Broadway Sacramento presentation of "Peter Pan," a musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play (and novel) with a score by Mark "Moose" Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green; produced by McCoy Rigby Entertainment, Nederlander Presentations, and Albert Nocciolino in association with Larry Earl Payton, Michael Filerman, Heni Koenigsberg and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

WHERE: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento, Calif.

WHEN: Runs Dec. 26 through 30, with performances at: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 26; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 28; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 29 and 30

WHO: Featuring Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan, Brent Barrett as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook, and Kim Crosby as Mrs. Darling; directed by Glenn Casale; flying sequences choreography by Paul Rubin; choreography by Patti Columbo; musical direction by Keith Levenso; lighting design by Michael Gilliam; sound design by Julie Ferrin; fight direction by Sean Boyd; and casting direction by Julia Flores

TICKETS:Ticket prices range from $19 to $86, and are available by calling (916) 557-1999 (Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office) or (916) 808-5181 (Community Center Theater Box Office), in person at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office and at the Community Center Theater Box Office, or by going online at tickets.com. For more information on tickets, click here.

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