By Jeremy Olshan
After decades of dueling pirates and doling our fairy dust, Peter Pan — now a grandmother — is preparing to fly for the exits.
“This will be the last time,” says Cathy Rigby, just before taking the stage at Madison Square Garden in New York. The former Olympic gymnast, who turned 59 last week, is the oldest — but perhaps still the sprightliest — to perform the role she’s played more than 3,000 times since 1990. Though she threatened to retire before, this touring production, which ends next year, will be it, she says.
“Peter Pan has taught me that we shouldn’t put limitations on what we’re capable of — people can be healthier, can stay younger,” says Rigby, who believes the character is a kind of patron saint for her “forever young” baby boomer generation. But the training regimen necessary to remain in tip-top-10-year-old shape has become more rigorous over time, she says. “To be believable on stage, I have to be able to jump and fly around — I have to believe,” she says. “I would never compromise on that.” In fact, for this final tour Rigby says she wanted to make the flying stunts more difficult and elaborate.
James Barrie, who invented the character more than a century ago, would have appreciated the efforts of the baby boom generation to redefine aging, Rigby says. “He was so insightful in how he captured the innocence and directness of the child, but it’s grownups he really understood. While a part of us wants to continue to grow up, another part wants to stay young forever. As I’ve gotten older I think I understand the character of the child more and more.”
Rigby did give herself the Hook in 2006, ready to move on to other things. But after doing one charity performance for critically-ill children she says she yearned to return to Neverland. “I went out into the lobby to give out a little fairy dust,” she says. “Seeing their excitement was like Christmas morning – you remember how you felt. I said, ‘I want to do this again. I have to.’’
It was much to Peter Pan’s chagrin that those he knew and loved grew up rather than remain young like him. Performing the role, Rigby says she’s had the opposite experience: as she’s grown older, the audience has remained the same age. “Except now it’s the children of those who saw the show years ago,” she says. “And the people who brought their kids, now are bringing their grandkids.”
Rigby has no heir apparent. “But it’s one of those roles — someone will grab hold of it,” she says. “I am sure somebody will take it away and fly with it.”
Or as Mr. Barrie put it, “and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”