Stage & Dance

Can-do spirit serves Cathy Rigby well in 'Peter Pan'

Cathy Rigby's athletic prowess and acrobatic expertise make  audiences believe she really is a boy.
Cathy Rigby's athletic prowess and acrobatic expertise make audiences believe she really is a boy.

Cathy Rigby asked the same question you probably asked: Can she really play Peter Pan, the boy who never wants to grow up, at age 58?

"I'm not 20 anymore," Rigby said during a phone interview. "I wouldn't allow myself to be anything less than the best that I can be and the best I had ever performed the show."

Certainly, as a former Olympic gymnast, there were examples for Rigby to look to for inspiration as she was preparing to reprise her role in Peter Pan — including long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who tried to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Miami at age 61 but abandoned the effort halfway.

But Rigby found her true inspiration in someone closer to home.

"Many times I look at my own mother," Rigby says. "My mom is in a wheelchair and can barely get out of bed. But from the time I can remember, she was stricken with polio when she was pregnant with my older brother, she changed her life to accommodate those circumstances. But now, at 85, she still gardens and she doesn't let challenges get in the way.

"She's always been an inspiration — if Mom can do this, I'm in great physical shape and I can do anything."

She could even do a farewell tour of Pan, which stops this weekend at the Lexington Opera House, 38 years after she originally donned the green tights.

Rigby had a successful gymnastics career and was credited with helping popularize the sport in the United States during the 1968 and '72 Olympic Games.

After retiring from gymnastics, she was asked by Disney to be part of an arena performance of Peter Pan that relied mostly on movement on the ground and suspended by wires, which came fairly naturally to her. What was intimidating to Rigby but intrigued her was the idea of acting as Peter Pan, with spoken dialogue, singing and dancing.

She took music and acting classes and began to embark on an acting career in the musicals The Wizard of Oz and Annie Get Your Gun. Then she was offered another shot at Peter, in 1986.

"It felt like being a kid again," Rigby said. "Only this time, along with the physical aspect of the show, which I knew very well, I had to learn to be spontaneous, direct, confrontational, joyous and all those things in this character."

It worked for her, and she received a Tony Award nomination in 1990 for her performance as Peter on Broadway.

Rigby became as closely associated with the part as Sandy Duncan, whom Rigby had remembered seeing in the role, although Rigby went on to other parts and now operates the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and the McCoy Rigby Conservatory for the Arts in Yorba Linda, Calif., with her husband, Tom McCoy. Their company is producing the Peter Pan tour, which Rigby did not take on lightly.

Of course, with a career as a champion gymnast, Rigby is not necessarily your typical 50-something taking on a physically demanding role.

"It probably played a huge part in me believing that you can do anything — you can, at 58, play Peter Pan," Rigby said. "I've learned that if you work at something to your full potential, there's no reason to believe you can't reach your best full potential. I know that sounds like a big motivational speech, but I really believe that.

"I will have to work harder at being the best I can be than someone who's 20 years old. But I'm willing to do that, and the great thing is I have experience on my side and know when to breathe, know when to dance and know when to attack a dance. There's a confidence that comes with age that allows you to be better and more fresh when you do things."

Still, Rigby said, with that experience and confidence, she was keenly aware she could not just jump into the role of Peter Pan the way she had in the past.

So 18 months ago she hired a trainer to get in shape to be a 10-year-old boy for eight performances a week.

"It has paid off," she said. "I feel less aches and pains two weeks into the tour than any other time I've done it in the past."

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