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Preview: Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan

Cathy Rigby returns to her roots with Madison Square Garden's Peter Pan.

  • Photograph: Craig Schwartz 2004

    Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan

  • Photograph: Craig Schwartz 2004

    Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan

  • Photograph: Michael Lamont

    Tom Hewitt and Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan

  • Photograph: Michael Lamont

    Cast of Peter Pan

Photograph: Craig Schwartz 2004

Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan

In Never Never Land, as the song goes, "you can never, never grow old." That may explain a few things about Cathy Rigby. At nearly 59, the former Olympic gymnast is returning to the title role of Peter Pan this month with all the gusto and athleticism that first made the character hers. Rigby's performance as J.M. Barrie's never-aging boy was nominated for a Tony in 1991, and she has had one foot in Never Land ever since.

"It's become such a huge part of my life," says Rigby. "I've had the chance to do other shows, but this is the one that's probably closest to my heart."

Peter Pan has been enchanting kids since 1954, when Mary Martin first soared over a Broadway stage. A 1960 TV broadcast (later released on VHS) and a 1979 stage revival starring Sandy Duncan brought the show to younger generations. But when Cathy Rigby pulls on those green tights, Peter Pan becomes something entirely new. Rigby's Peter is all sinew and swagger, a boy through and through, with an earnestness that never veers close to camp. And then there's the flying. With her gymnast's body, the actor pulls off aerial stunts that the creators of Spider-Man can only dream of.

"People don't realize how exact it is," says Rigby of her flight choreography, which requires two stagehands on the ropes. "It's timed to the music, it's timed to how far you come from the ground. You only have the space of that nursery to make sure that you're landing perfectly for the next move."

While the technical aspects of Peter Pan are breathtaking, its most impressive feat is convincing today's savvy kids to suspend their disbelief. Rigby recalls one tiny fan speaking up during the show's famous clap-if-you-believe-in-fairies scene.

"Sometimes you get a very adult group of people who are hesitant to clap their hands for Tinkerbell, and you're pleading with them to please clap their hands," says Rigby, laughing. "So one time I say, 'Please, just clap if you believe!' And this little voice says, 'Well, I believe!'" Getting kids to believe that a flickering ball of light is a fairy—and that a 59-year-old woman on wires is a flying boy—proves that Peter Pan is something magical indeed.

plays at the Theater at Madison Square Garden from Dec 14 to 30.

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