By Gary Dean Murray
Starring Cathy Rigby and Brent Barrett with Kim Crosby
Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
Music by Moose Charlap
Based on the play by Sir James Barrie
This is the second time I have seen Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. All I knew for sure about Cathy Rigby the first time I saw her in the role was that she was a former Olympic gymnast who garnered many medals, did some commercials then did commentary on ABC Sports. I had heard she had performed on the Great White Way, but I didn’t know much about her appearances or her success. With a second helping at the Dallas Summer Musicals, I’m sure that this change from soft gym mats to hard stage flooring is not a fluke but a perfect turn.
The story of Peter Pan has been around for about a century, but it has only been a musical since the 1950’s. Most people know the story either from the wonderful Disney version or the not-so-wonderful version directed by Steven Spielberg.
Here is it set in Two Acts, an improvement from the last time it was presented. This version of the work just whisks along at a breakneck pace, a smart move in the direction of the presentation.
For those who don’t know the plot, the work opens as the three Darling children – Wendy (Krista Buccellato), John (Cade Cannon Ball) and Michael (Julia Massey) — are getting ready for bed. It is a crazed existence with their dog Nana (Clark Roberts) as the nursemaid. Mrs. Darling (Kim Crosby) frets over her children and Mr. Darling (Brent Barrett) worries about keeping a roof over their head. Nana just tries to keep everyone safe,
Peter Pan (Cathy Rigby), with Tinker Bell in tow, flies into the room looking for his shadow. Peter’s entrance is actually flying on wires and glitter flowing from the hands. Peter takes the trio to Neverland, by using fairy dust and thinking happy thoughts. There is a tension between Peter Pan and Wendy, an attraction neither understands. Peter wants to stay a boy forever but misses the concept of a mother. Eventually the three Darling children take off to Neverland, flying on wireworks that would make even the most hard core rollercoaster rider squeamish.
They meet the Lost Boys and Tiger Lily (Jenna Wright) and her Indians. They also come into contact with the notorious one -armed Captain Hook (Brent Barrett) and his cut – throat pirates with Smee (James Leon Ryan) as the first mate. It is their adventures in Neverland and the ultimate confrontation between Hook and Peter (and Tic–Toc the Croc) that drive the story. By the end of the play, everyone in the audience ‘believes in fairies’.
But in a musical, the plot is secondary to the songs and performers. These songs have hooks that would make Captain Hook proud. The most well-known tune arguably is “I Won’t Grow Up”. Here is it presented with a gee-whiz flair with a blend of song and gymnastics that make live theater still a draw. The cast dances with a manic flair that the song becomes a sweet treat.
Starting Act II is the biggest moment in Peter Pan. It is the show-stopper called “Ugg – a – Wugg”. The song becomes the large production number, with most of the cast dancing to Indian rhythms and beating on the floor as if calling the Native Spirits themselves. As they drive toward a crescendo, the audience falls into the hypnotic spell of the cadence. It is the single biggest reason to see this work. To call it ‘magical’ almost misused the word.
Praise has to go to first and foremost to Brent Barrett as Captain Hook. He struts about, with theatrical prowess, taking charge in his every scene. Barrett gives his Captain Hook a flawless combination between villain and buffoon that perfectly captures the spirit of the work in the finest melodramatic context. Though he has four different songs in the work, he takes the tune “Hook’s Waltz” and turns it into a roaring dance number. It is a joy to watch this master thespian command the part. His other pirates pale to this vibrato take.
Tiger Lily is a role heavy on the dancing and Jenna Wright shows that there are no small parts on stage. She moves with the grace of a seasoned ballet dancer and turns a supporting role into a star-making focus. She comes on full-force and touches the audience with dance that is as moving as it is lyrical. This is a young woman to keep note of.
One of the other members of the cast that should be singled out is Krista Buccellato as Wendy. She gives the part a touching reading, keeping a balance between childhood and adulthood in her lines. The young lady sings like an angel and blends perfectly with Cathy Rigby on more than one occasion. The song “Distant Melody” shows how well the two actors work together.
Even though this is a mostly adolescent cast, one has to note how professional they put on this play. Some of the cast are not even teenagers yet they keep the pace without a falter or miscue. The production has assembled one of the strongest groups of youthful talent for a touring show. The excitement that they bring translates to the audience.
But the biggest acclaims are for Cathy Rigby. This former Olympian is on the road to getting her AARP card and can still do a two-hour show eight times a week. Just flying around the stage and not getting ill is an accomplishment, but Mrs. Rigby makes it look second nature. Her fairy dust — filled swoops and sweeps are breathtakingly comfortable.
The most amazing aspect is that as she flies, she sings. She delivers a soft, sweet voice that hits the back of the auditorium with solid force. Also remarkable is that she performs gymnastics while singing and acting. When Peter first meets Wendy, Cathy does twirls and twists on just about every piece of furniture on the set.
She gives it her all in Peter Pan exactly the same way Yul Brenner did with his role in The King and I. This is an iconic portrayal that is also a legend making turn.
The sets and costumes are all first rate, Broadway caliber. The Darling home and the pirate ship are both perfectly conceived. Hook’s costume sparkles on stage. For a touring show, it has the look of a set stage on Broadway.
To be honest, I don’t know how long Cathy Rigby can keep doing this show. It has to take a toll on the body. It would be a shame for anyone to miss an actor doing a perfectly suited role. Peter Pan is a not to be missed theater experience.
Peter Pan plays at the Dallas Summer Musicals through July 22nd