CATHY RIGBY IN 'PETER PAN': HER STAGE CAREER IS FLYING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Of course, going into theater in the first place was chancy for Ms. Rigby, who retired from gymnastics competition shortly after the Munich Olympics. Though she never won an Olympic medal, she did receive 12 other international medals, eight of them gold, and in 1972 she was pictured on the cover of Life.

Like many other high-profile athletes, Ms. Rigby got offers for television shows, movies, endorsements and commercials after her retirement. She accepted a few and still serves as a gymnastics commentator for ABC Sports. However, the first time she appeared live on stage was in a 1974 arena-style touring production of "Peter Pan," in which she used the uneven parallel bars to escape from Captain Hook and lip-synced her songs and dialogue.

"That was the impetus to take voice lessons and acting lessons," she says, adding, "I took six years of voice lessons before I ever stepped out on stage. I'm a person who takes risks, but not without lots of preparation."

Ms. Rigby made her singing debut as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," performing "Over the Rainbow" in front of more than 3,000 people in Sacramento, Calif. Her subsequent stage credits have included "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Paint Your Wagon," "They're Playing Our Song" and eight or nine separate productions of "Peter Pan" -- she's lost count.

About four years ago, when she was appearing in a different "Peter Pan," Ms. Rigby received a review saying her performance was "as predictable as her balance beam routine." It made her re-evaluate her acting. "For the first time I realized I cannot approach acting like gymnastics. Obviously you have to be technical to a certain extent, but you'd better be spontaneous. You had better have the emotion behind it," she says.

"In gymnastics you think about the same thing all the time -- my arms go here, my legs go here. In acting, you put all the technique behind you. When you've been so controlled all your life, and all of the sudden you push those limits -- maybe that's the joy that I'm feeling doing this show."

Ms. Rigby has, quite literally, found a second family in the theater. One of her fellow cast members in the Sacramento "Wizard of Oz" was Thomas P. McCoy, who became her second husband (her first was former running back Tommy Mason). Besides encouraging her show business career, Mr. McCoy, who is the co-producer of "Peter Pan," was also her "biggest help" in recovering from bulimia and anorexia, a process she says took years and included therapy.

Ms. Rigby takes her children, who range in age from 5 to 15, on the road with her whenever possible. At times her entourage also includes her mother, whom she describes as one of her heroes. "My mother contracted polio when she was pregnant with my older brother, then had three more children," explains Ms. Rigby, who is the middle child of five. "My mother's the kind of woman who just seemed to be unstoppable. There's nothing she couldn't do."

Perhaps partly because of her mother's example, Ms. Rigby spends as much time as possible with her family. Mr. Soeder describes a typical evening when the children are backstage:

"Cathy will finish the first act -- within itself that is a marathon. She walks into her dressing room. She takes a sip of Gatorade and sits down with her two little girls and plays, and just before she has to go on, she says goodbye to her girls, and she comes back at the next intermission and the same process is repeated. And moments after the curtain is down she has one of her little girls on each of her hands and they're talking about whatever fairy tale or fantasy is on the horizon.

"And," he continues, "it is not unusual to see her and her boys and her girls tumbling on a mattress in between matinee and evening performances."

Watching her mother on stage has caught the fancy of at least one of Ms. Rigby's children. Her 5-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, confessed at one point, "Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a boy like you."

Ms. Rigby chuckles and says, "She's learning lots of good things in the theater."

'Peter Pan'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

When: Oct. 30 to Nov. 25.

Tickets: $22-$37.

Call: 625-1400.

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