Cathy Rigby In 'Peter Pan': Her Stage Career Is Flying

October 28, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Cathy Rigby has a lot to crow about.

These days she's crowing eight times a week as the title character in the national tour of "Peter Pan," which begins a one-month run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

The production -- now midway through a 58-city tour -- also will mark Ms. Rigby's Broadway debut when it arrives at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for a six-week engagement beginning Dec. 11.

A two-time Olympic gymnast and the first American woman to win a medal in world gymnastics competition, the 37-year-old mother of four can be proud of her personal life as well. After suffering from bulimia and anorexia for 12 years, she has successfully overcome her eating disorders, a subject on which she lectures and has produced an educational videotape, distributed by College Hospital in Cerritos, Calif.

Currently, however, Ms. Rigby is happiest about "Peter Pan." "There are nights when you are tired. The road is tough. But I can't imagine loving anything any more than I do this right now," she says over the phone from her home in Fullerton, Calif., during a rare week off.

Ms. Rigby's affection for the role is confirmed by the show's director, Fran Soeder, who directed her in two previous productions. "Cathy never works at playing Peter Pan," he explains. "She plays playing Peter Pan."

One reason is that, to a large extent, Ms. Rigby identifies with Peter Pan's desire not to grow up -- both physically and psychologically. As a gymnast, she became bulimic partly in an attempt to keep her figure childlike. "That's what this sport dictates," she says.

She also feels she may be closer to the character emotionally than many of her famous predecessors, who have included Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan. "I can understand Peter Pan a little bit better -- not wanting to take responsibility, not wanting to grow up, wanting to suppress all kinds of pressures. You numb out anything that is uncomfortable."

Like Peter Pan, Ms. Rigby "numbed out" or "stuck her head in the sand" for a long time, dangerously long in her case -- a dozen years, including two periods of hospitalization for electrolyte imbalances brought on by bulimia and anorexia. "Eating disorders are about: 'If I can't control the issues going on on the outside, if I can't control whether I win at the Olympics, whether my father drinks, then I will control my weight.' It's a sign of rebellion, and it's very Peter Pan-like," she explains.

There's another way in which she is like Peter Pan. After spending the first half of her life as a gymnast, Ms. Rigby can truly fly with the greatest of ease. What's difficult, she says, is singing, dancing and acting while wearing the 7-pound harness that hoists her aloft.

"You're strapped into it like a corset around your waist and over your shoulders and through your legs, very tightly," she says. "I had to gain an incredible amount of endurance to pull it off."

The actual flying "is a ball," Ms. Rigby says. Designed by Foy -- a name which is to stage flight what the Wright Brothers were to airplanes -- Ms. Rigby's flying sequences receive a backstage assist from "two guys who are pulling the ropes, one who pulls me back and forth, and one who pulls me up and down."

Her most daring aerobatics come at the end of the first act. "I spin and I turn . . . I actually grab the curtain and I spin," she says. "I guess because of the gymnastics I have a pretty good awareness of how to spin, how to stop myself. There's a feeling of total abandon up there, and risk. I'm not cautious up there."

There have been a couple of mishaps, however. In Kansas City, Mo., during the sword fight with Captain Hook, "I was flying too fast and put both hands in front of me to stop myself," Ms. Rigby recalls. "My sword hit the set first and ricocheted and hit me over the eye." She finished the show with blood streaming down her face, and subsequently received 10 stitches. "I'm sure the audience thought this was the most realistic thing."

On another occasion, the wire that propels her upward got crossed with the wire of another actress. "Instead of flying out the window, she flew up in a horizontal position. She was in bed, so with covers and all she flew up in the air," Ms. Rigby says, adding that they immediately performed the scene again -- correctly the second time.

But according to Mr. Soeder, flying isn't the only risk Ms. Rigby takes in this production. Instead of merely reviving the famous 1954 Jerome Robbins staging -- complete with a dancing kangaroo -- Mr. Soeder went back to the original 1904 Sir James M. Barrie play, on which the 1954 musical was based. He found that "it was gritty, a little darker and a lot more intense," and he incorporated this flavor into the production, deleting some material and replacing it with more hard-edged Barrie lines.

"The wonderful thing about Cathy is that instinctively she wants to take risks, and this production of 'Peter Pan' was not safe," he says.

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