December 2012: Cathy Rigby and Peter Pan: Inspirations to Us All

Cathy Rigby reprises her role as Peter Pan at the age of 60.

By Sara G. Stephens
Managing Editor, Houston Family Magazine

Cathy Rigby is many things.
She is 60 years old.
She is an Olympic gymnast.
She is a Tony-award nominated actress.
She is Peter Pan.
She is an inspiration.

In 1974, my parents took my brother, sister, and me to see Peter Pan in Cleveland, Ohio. I was eight years old.  The role of Peter Pan was played by Cathy Rigby, then only 20 years old and a national figure after winning America’s hearts as a charming and gifted gymnast in the 1972 Olympics.

My sister and I were captivated.  For years after the fact, we re-enacted the Peter Pan production in our playroom at home.  The musical, and Rigby’s role as Peter Pan, were nothing short of magical.

Last night, I took my husband and two daughters (ages 8 and 4) to see Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.  I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my family, and remained in a state of disbelief that Rigby would be reprising her role as the story’s lovably, irreverent boy hero.  Before the curtain opened, a spokesman appeared on stage to thank the show’s sponsors. He also took a moment to acknowledge that Rigby would be celebrating her 60th birthday the next day.

my daughters, 8 and 4, at last night's production of Peter Pan, starring Cathy Rigby, at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

I couldn’t help but feel nervous for the actress, hoping with all my heart that she hadn’t bitten off more than she could chew, that she wouldn’t disappoint the kids-of-all-ages audience, that she wouldn’t disappoint my kids, me, and, most importantly, herself.

But, in true Peter Pan fashion, I believed. And my faith was justified.

My 4-year-old took mental notes as Rigby dropped into full splits, flew and flipped through the air on wires, and rolled and jumped across every layer of stage scenery. My 8-year-old marveled at Rigby’s masterful sword-fighting, laughed at her spot-on delivery of Peter’s unwittingly insensitive remarks, and held back a tear as Peter held a fading Tinkerbell in his (her) hands.

I sat in amazement at Rigby’s energy, precision, and talent (I don’t remember her vocals being as strong in ’74, but then again, maybe I just wasn’t as focused on that part of the show at that age).

Other parts of the show were equally commendable:  Bren Barrett, as Captain Hook, carried his character with flair and vulnerability, as the best villains tend to manifest. Jenna Wright mesmerized the audience with cat-like stealth and powerful dancing in the role of Tiger Lily.

But I have to say my favorite part of the show was the moment Rigby, as Peter Pan, appealed to the audience for their help in reviving Tinkerbell.  In slowly fading “tinker tones,” she “told” Peter she would only survive if she knew children believed in fairies.  Rigby urged the audience to clap and yell loudly, “I believe!”  Everyone was happy to oblige, and the sold-out theatre rang with the magical voices of children of all ages.

I left the theatre a believer in the fantasy of childhood and in the returns of being a mom. As a mother, I got to watch my kids glow with the inspiration of both Peter Pan and Cathy Rigby. She may very well refuse to grow up, but she succeeds in growing better with every passing year. Cackaw to you, Cathy.  And happy birthday.

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