Rigby wows as ‘Peter Pan’ in Broadway Theatre League season opener

Reviewed by Barb Van Atta

Poor Peter Pan, his name much maligned now by women describing immature partners and mates. There’s really something gentle and bittersweet about the original Peter. Disappointed early in life by the callousness of adults, he clings to the black-and-white, all right-or-all wrong simplicity of childhood. And, don’t we all sometimes wish our lives were as simple as they seemed to be when we were young? It’s that timelessness of theme that makes the musical Peter Pan appeal to generation after generation, and it’s the timeless talent of Cathy Rigby that makes performances such as those being presented this week by Broadway Theatre League so wonderful.

Rigby is 58 and a grandma, but she retains the athleticism of her youth as an Olympic gymnast. Couple that with her talents as dancer, actress, singer and – as proved in Act II – percussionist, and audience members quickly understand why the program cover says “Cathy Rigby IS (not as) Peter Pan.” She is the embodiment of J.M. Barrie’s “Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.” Over two decades in the role, starting with a Tony-nominated revival, she has honed her characterization through posture and mannerisms, with her petite frame adding to the illusion.

And, of course, she can “fly.” I got dizzy just watching her sail back and forth above The Forum stage last night (Tues., Oct. 25). And here’s the thing: I know, you know and perhaps even the youngest child in the audience knows that it takes a lot more than just “happy thoughts” and those handfuls of sparkling “fairy dust” to get actors aloft, but the stagecraft here is amazing. Rigby parades all around the stage, seemingly with “no strings attached,” yet, when called upon, rises aloft again. Even more amazing: There never seems to be a moment when any wires are attached to Wendy, Michael and John before they too are soaring and singing the joyous “I’m Flying.” It really is magical.

This is, of course, Rigby’s show… literally — she and her husband, Tom McCoy, are the executive producers of the national tour — but she is ably supported by her costars, some of whom bring with them their own list of Broadway credentials.  Tom Hewitt, as the flustered Mr. Darling and the foppish Captain Hook, is a delight, particularly in the song-and-dance numbers (“A Princely Scheme,” “Another Princely Scheme” and “Hook’s Waltz”) with his pirate crew (and back-up band). Kim Crosby (Cinderella in the original company of Sondheim’s Into the Woods) brings a strong voice and a melancholy dignity to Mrs. Darling and, later, to the grown-up Wendy.

Because this is a touring production, there is a lot of doubling (even tripling) up on roles, beyond the traditional Mr. Darling/Captain Hook combination. Crosby also is a mermaid; Carly Bracco is both Tootles, a Lost Boy, and Wendy’s daughter, Jane; ensemble members serve as both pirates and Indians. Jenna Wright, when not dancing up a storm as the lithe and lovely Tiger Lily, dons the prim and proper costume of the Darlings’ household maid, Liza. A particular audience favorite is Clark Roberts who, in addition to dancing and singing  the role of pirate Bill Jukes, charms and amuse as the two costumed animal characters: Nana, the Darlings’ devoted canine nanny, and Hook’s nemesis, the grinning, waving, ticking crocodile.

A gender-bender like Rigby, 9-year-old Julia Massey brings a sweet charm to Michael, the youngest Darling child and, like 10-year-old Cade Canon Ball (John Darling), is a solid singer and actor. Krista Buccellato, making her Equity debut, has a good decade on Wendy but ably portrays the girl’s blend of innocence and burgeoning womanhood. Another strong musician, Buccellato also manages to avoid the prissiness that could bubble up as Wendy plays “mother” to the Lost Boys.

A longtime fan of the Mary Martin TV broadcast, I thought I knew the show rather well. All day I hummed such well-known melodies as “Tender Shepherd,” “I Gotta Crow,” “Neverland” and “I Won’t Grow Up.” Apparently, though, dance numbers weren’t on my radar as a child. Therefore, I was taken by surprise by the dazzling production number that opens Act II.  Patti Colombo’s choreography of “Ugg-a-Wugg,” a celebration of an alliance between the Indians and the Lost Boys, is part ballet, part jazz dance and part Stomp percussion fest. Rigby and Wright exuberantly lead their tribes with the aid of an onstage kettle drum and some nifty back-and-forth with the touring orchestra’s percussionist, Tommy Bradford.

Audience members born in the era of fiber optics and body mics may not realize how complicated the production values are in a show such as Peter Pan, which features several sets, a sky of twinkling stars and, of course, that inquisitive ball of light, Tinkerbell. Although there were a couple of glitches (and some moments of feedback and singer/orchestra imbalance), the opening night performance, before a nearly full Forum, went very well. Jaded teens were as charmed as the tykes and enthusiastically joined in the well-deserved standing ovation.

There are 7 p.m. performances today (Wed., Oct. 26) and Thursday (Oct. 27) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton.  For ticket information, visit broadwaybinghamton.com, or call (607) 778-1369.

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