THE CATHY RIGBY ''Peter Pan'' that opened last night at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre is a lively, bouncy presentation, and it isn't just because Rigby, a former Olympic gymnast, is appearing in the lead role. She is certainly an asset, but she isn't the only one; the direction is another. Cast members Stephen Hanan, Lauren Thompson and Cindy Robinson also turn in strong performances.
Fran Soeder did the staging, and he has this ''Peter Pan'' moving at a lively pace. At yesterday's matinee, it ran little more than two and one-half hours, and that included the post-curtain business which you will certainly want to see, so don't be too eager to leave the place.
This ''Peter Pan'' is the musical version that was first done on Broadway in 1954. Mary Martin was the boy who never wanted to grow up and encouraged the Darling children to fly away with him to his island home.
Martin repeated the show on television several times live, then she did a taped version which has been shown and reshown, making the medium richer every time it is.
The straight version of the show is 86 years old. It was written by James M. Barrie. It was first produced in London in 1904. That same year, it opened in this country with Maude Adams as Peter.
That was apparently Barrie's wish. He wanted a woman to play the role of Peter, and a tradition was born. In all these years, Peter Pan has been played by actresses, among them Marilyn Miller, Eva Le Gallienne, Jean Arthur, Betsy Palmer, Mia Farrow, Veronica Lake and Sandy Duncan.
The surprising thing about Rigby is not so much that she is an engaging Peter. The really surprising thing about her is her voice, which is as good as anything you'll find on the Broadway stage.
At times, Rigby sounds like Martin, and this the highest praise anyone might receive, at least anyone who tries to follow Martin in this show.
Rigby is a little more athletic, a shade tougher than others who have done this role, but she makes you want to believe in all this once more, even if you have seen the show a dozen times.
The Martin image stands tall among those who have done this role, but then so does Rigby's, and she is given very nice support by Hanan, who appears as Mr. Darling, father of the three Darling children, then doubles as Captain Hook, dastardly leader of the Pirates who menace the island where Peter and his lost boys live.
No need to go that deeply into the plot. If you don't already know it, you've been out of the country too long. If you do know it, you know that most of the lines are timeless, even the one that has Peter asking members of the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies.
People did laugh. They always do, but this may be because the line is so familiar and by this time, campy. Members of the audience also clapped. They children in the audience seemed equally charmed. There was very little squirming among the younger set, but then this show travels so fast it hardly allows for boredom.
The score still sounds good, and if the dancing isn't as elaborate as it was in the Duncan version, it is certainly good enough.
Don Potter is Mr. Smee, crony to Captain Hook, and this time, he, too, gets a few laughs. So does Hanan, whose Hook is more matinee idol than pirate. Hanan, too, has a strong voice, along with Thompson and Robinson, who makes a particularly winsome Wendy. The ''flying,'' those wires that allow Rigby and the others to ''fly'' about the stage, are managed by Flying By Foy, a company that specializes in this sort of stagecraft.
The Rigby ''Peter Pan'' gets a little loud at times, particularly in the second act, but it always comes down just in time.
Some lines and situations have been altered, but all this is to the good. This is a very respectable ''Peter Pan.'' It will remain at the Mechanic through November 25.
*** James M. Barrie's tale about a little boy who didn't want to grow up.
CAST: Cathy Rigby, Cindy Robinson, Britt West, Chad Hutchinson, Lauren Thompson, Stephen Hanan, Holly Irwin
DIRECTOR: Fran Soeder
RUNNING TIME: Two hours and 33 minutes