No Flash in the Pan

The ads proclaim that Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan, but of course that's not entirely true. Peter Pan was a lot of things, but he was never an Olympic gymnast or a nationally televised shill for feminine protection.

Still, Rigby and the ageless Mr. Pan do have several things in common. Both became famous for flying through the air, and both favor leotards as streetwear and big, shiny bangs. But the duo's most striking similarity is that they each managed to remain boys for an unnaturally long time.

"As a gymnast, you're taught that it's best to always be young and flat-chested and little, like a boy," Rigby explains from a hotel room between stops on the Peter Pan tour. "Of course, that isn't good, because a young girl's body wants to do something else."

That desire to do other than what was expected of her led Rigby to a 12-year battle with eating disorders and a lot of resentment about having to act like a grown-up and look like a kid. She went from prepubescence to adulthood overnight when, as a youngster, she began to train for the Olympics eight hours a day.

"There was little time for fun and games," recalls the 45-year-old ex-Olympian. "As the perfect little gymnast, I was expected to be stoic and not to have any feelings. I was expected to show up and work and be this perfect, grown-up little robot. I never had spontaneity or mischief. That's why I never get tired of playing Peter--because it allows me to indulge all the emotions I wasn't allowed as a child."

Rigby has otherwise grown up, regained her health, and gotten on with her life. She turned her World Gymnastics gold-medal win into a successful television and stage career, touring in big-money revivals like The Wizard of Oz and Annie Get Your Gun. Her 1991 Broadway turn in Peter Pan bagged her a Tony nomination, a near miss that netted her something more important than another hunk of gold to hang on the wall.

"After the Tony nomination, people finally stopped saying things like, 'Hey, she sings pretty well for a gymnast.' I had been studying voice and acting for years, but everyone thought of me on a balance beam. I finally became one of the gang after our show was nominated for some Tonys." This time out, Rigby and company have tinkered with Peter's libretto, making it darker and more PC. "This is most kids' introduction to Native Americans," Rigby says, "so we cut out most of the lyrics in the 'Ugg-a-Wugg' song that refer to them as savages or Redskins. In the new version, the reason they're after the Lost Boys is because they took something from the Indians."

Director Glenn Casale has also fiddled with Sir James Barrie's original story, making the usually foppish Hook into a genuine menace and punching up the musical's mommy obsession: There's Peter's bitterness over being abandoned as a child, and the little boys' desire to be mothered by waifish Wendy. New choreography (the Stomplike "Ugg-a-Wugg" is a showstopper) and a fledgling flying crew (ZFX Inc. replaces the famous Flying by Foy team) help keep the show's star up in the air.

Rigby is enjoying Peter Pan's return flight, and is looking forward to the show's Broadway homecoming at the end of the year. Meantime, she's glad to be playing to theater critics rather than gymnastics judges. "In gymnastics, every move you make is judged, and if you're not perfect, you fail. In theater, you work with a team and you're judged in a more overall way. Plus, when you're attached to strings, you can stay up in the air longer."

--Robrt L. Pela

Peter Pan is performed at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 28; and the same time Wednesday, July 29; and Thursday, July 30; at 8 p.m. Friday, July 31; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, August 1; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 2, at Symphony Hall, 225 East Adams. Tickets range from $15 to $45. 262-7272 (Phoenix Civic Plaza), 503-5555 (Dillard's).