One has to marvel at Cathy Rigby. Early in her career she was known as America’s sweetheart because of her competitive gymnastics career. These days, more people probably know her as the longest flying Peter Pan. Rigby once again she dons the wires to soar, spin, and flip over the stage in a new production of Peter Pan at the Pantages Theatre.
We all know the story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up coming into contact with the Darling family when he is separated from his shadow. In meeting Wendy, John, and Michael, Peter finds kindred spirits who are looking for an adventure of their own. Off they all go to Neverland where Wendy (Krista Buccellatto) can play mother to the Lost Boys. Not everyone is in love with Peter, particularly Captain Hook (Brent Barrett who also plays Mr. Darling) who blames him for the loss of his hand to a crocodile leaving him with a hook in its place.
Though this is the same James Barrie story that Disney turned into a cartoon, it is certainly not the same music. Peter Pan, which originally opened on Broadway in 1954 with Mary Martin in the title role, has lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, music by Moose Charlap, additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and additional music by Jule Styne. It was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, which explains the multiple dance numbers in the show.
Glenn Casale directs this version but it only comes alive when Ms. Rigby takes to the air. The show feels dated and the production looks like it had a miniscule budget. The sets shake and look as though put together by a college theatre department. The orchestra, if I can call it that, sounds skimpy.* This Peter Pan feels more like a theme park production dragged onto stage than a show that can measure up to other touring musicals.
Ms. Rigby is the reason people come to see Peter Pan and she doesn’t disappoint. She clearly relishes this role and the opportunity to do in the air what she once did on balance beams and in floor exercises. There were several times when I had a hard time hearing her; I'm not sure whether it was a problem with her diction or the sound system. I took my 8-year old niece to the show and she asked if everyone was singing live or to pre-recorded tracks; that’s how bad the sound was at times.
In the decades since Peter Pan was first introduced to the world, special effects in musicals have long surpassed the simplicity of the flying seen here. Mary Poppins ascending the house to the ceiling in that show is far more impressive. But if Mary Poppins had Cathy Rigby, perhaps that would have been better, too.
*An earlier versions of this review stated that there were only three musicians in the orchestra. Though they were the only ones credited in the program, there are in fact 15 musicians in the pit for Peter Pan.