Cathy Rigby with her youngest grandchild, Delilah, 11 months. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
Cathy Rigby flies across the Pantages Theatre stage from Jan. 15 through 27 in J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan," reprising her signature role, which earned her a 1991 Tony nomination. At age 60, the San Diego native still fits into the costume she wore for her 1974 debut as the boy who never grows up; theater producers had recruited her to parlay her fame as an Olympic gymnast into box-office gold.
Rigby lives in La Habra Heights with her husband, Tom McCoy, who is also her partner in their theatrical production company, McCoy Rigby Entertainment, which produced her latest "Peter Pan" tour as well as productions of other American musicals.
You said farewell in your 2005 "Peter Pan" tour. So what inspired this one?
I missed it. Some regional theaters had asked me to do it again, and I thought, "If I can do the show on a last tour again, only do it better ... if I can bring something new to the role, then I ..." just because I missed it and I loved it. So I did, and we started out about 15 months ago and it has probably been one of the most amazing tours so far. Plus the show itself is, I think, just much better.
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When you know a role so well, even the athleticism is effortless this time. You're allowed to be the character rather than play at being the character. Not that I didn't strive for that before, but there's just something magical that's happened. It's like doing a balance-beam routine and knowing you're going to stay on, so you can jump a little higher, you can spin a little faster. I also think that with the flying we've been able to add new things to it, so it makes it more exciting. It's nice to be my age and able to be doing the things I'm doing on a wire, and it's actually a little bit easier than it used to be.
But aren't there any challenges to playing an adolescent boy at 60?
No, I find it less of a challenge. As you get older, you tend not to be so serious about every move you make. I think we get so caught up in what we should be doing, in perfectionism, making sure we're pleasing everybody, that creativity can get in the way. You get to the point where you just go, "It is what it is."
It's nonetheless impressive that you can pull off an adolescent boy as a 60-year-old woman. Why is this role so endlessly compelling for you?
For two hours a night I get to go back and play and be politically incorrect and mischievous and dance, be childlike. Everyone takes something different from the show, and I see this with baby boomers right now, that there's a sentimentality this time around. They just have this really strong emotional connection. There's a line at the end of the show where grown-up Wendy — her daughter wants to go to Neverland with Peter — she says, "If only I could go with you," and there's this collective sigh from the audience.
You talk about going back to a time when life was about playing, but when you were a kid, you had the demands of competing as an athlete. During the Summer of Love, you must have had to be incredibly disciplined.
You're absolutely right. Another reason this has such appeal for me is that I loved what I did, I loved gymnastics, but we worked out six to eight hours a day, and the whole focus was about emotional control and physical perfection. So even though that's what I wanted, it isn't about a free-for-all spontaneity. So when I got out of it, one of the things that absolutely changed my life was doing this particular role because it's all about that. And the doing of the role over the years has taught me a lot about going back and being a kid.
How many productions of "Peter Pan" have you done now?
I know I've done probably over 3,000 performances. We've done three or four national tours and Broadway tours and we've gone to Canada and we went to China this last summer.
How was that?
It was really fun, and I learned how to say "Do you believe in fairies?" in Chinese. It was really funny because sometimes they would get ahead of the dialogue and so people would be laughing before we even said the joke. But they loved it, and hopefully we'll bring more shows back to Macau and parts of China.
So this isn't your last farewell tour then?
No, I'm not going back with "Peter Pan." We run a theater and do national and other Broadway shows and they love American musicals over there, so we're putting stuff together right now. No, "Peter Pan" is done in April.
You mentioned that flying has changed. In what way?