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Lucky lady: Cathy Rigby never has to grow up in Peter Pan, but she can reveal her secrets of flying

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TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
Cathy Rigby flies in every performance of Peter Pan. Photo by Isaac James/Theatre Under the Stars
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
At first, Rigby was more terrified about singing than acting. Photo by Isaac James/Theatre Under the Stars
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
Rigby stands tall in this scene from Peter Pan. Photo by Isaac James/Theatre Under the Stars
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
A scene from Peter Pan Photo by Isaac James/Theatre Under the Stars
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
Captain Hook, center, gets his time in the spotlight in Peter Pan. Photo by Isaac James/Theatre Under the Stars
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
TUTS, Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, December 2012
Nancy Wozny, head shot, September 2012

Once, while playing with my then 4-year old, I couldn't fit through a tunnel on the playground. "Too many birthdays," replied my son, nodding his head sadly.

Growing up means never being able to fit into small spaces, and other horrors. No wonder J. M. Barrie's eternal mischievous boy Peter Pan continues to hold our imagination. Adults just get cut out of all kinds of fun stuff.

Birthdays don't quite have the same effect for hi-flying Cathy Rigby, who turns 60 today, which will occur on her second performance of Peter Pan, presented by Theatre Under the Stars at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, through Dec. 22.

  "I was used to flying from my own muscle power on the parallel bars and high beam. Here, the wires do all the lifting."  

The last time Rigby flew over my head, I had the little chap sitting on my lap, and it was at the old Music Hall. Some two decades later, Rigby returns to her favorite role, flying through the snazzy Hobby Center. She toured with Pan again in 2006, but it's been a while since we saw the former superstar gymnast soar over our heads.

I told the Rigby about my little fellow crouching down as she whisked by, and how much we enjoyed the show as a family. "That's always what it's like for families seeing the show," said Rigby during our lively phone chat. "People remember when and with whom they saw it. It's such a sentimental show."

Rigby in the sky with wires

Rigby loves to talk about the friendly skies above the audiences' heads. "Do you remember your first time in flight?," I asked the Olympian turned Broadway star. "Of course. It was never an issue. I felt safe right away. I was used to flying from my own muscle power on the parallel bars and high beam. Here, the wires do all the lifting." 

She is quick to offer the fact that she doesn't fly alone. Her pilot is Paul Rubin of ZFX. They work together to create an air ballet like none other. Flying technology has become even more sophisticated since Rigby took her first flight. So much more above air dancing is possible now.

  As for flying at 60, Rigby swears by Vitamin B and plenty of core training, including lots of those grueling planks.  

This time around she will be using both a double and single harness, allowing all kinds of complicated air candy. "We are going higher faster, which keeps it so much fun for me," she said. "Expect more flipping and soaring, too. "

It takes two people to fly Pan, one takes her up and down, the other side to side. "Trust is everything," she said. "It's like partnering in ballet. We have to breathe together, but their hands are on the ropes and not me."

The actual flying requires precision, exact attention to form and the ability to not cross the wires. As for flying at 60, Rigby swears by Vitamin B and plenty of core training, including lots of those grueling planks. "Doing a two-hour show eight times a week keeps me in shape," she added. "But really, this time around I'm able to relax into the part."

Flying is easy, singing is terrifying

When you hear Rigby belt out, "I'm Flying," she does conjure Mary Martin more than a little bit. Dancing, flying and even the physicality of acting came easy to Rigby. She was a performer as an athlete, known for her grace and charm in addition to her extraordinary abilities. Learning to sing did not come so easily.

Rigby didn't just go from the high beam to the Broadway stage overnight. "I studied acting and singing for seven years. After the first three years, I wondered why I am doing this?," Rigby remembered. "It was terrifying. For me, the greater risk was singing."

 "I studied acting and singing for seven years. After the first three years, I wondered why I am doing this? It was terrifying. For me, the greater risk was singing." 

It was here that her elite athlete mentality came in handy.

"In sports, you learn that with effort you get better. I couldn't give up. I needed to work harder. So I practiced every day for seven years. A little obsessive compulsive behavior helped too."

Rigby powered through the acting and singing training, earning her a unique spot in the history of musical theater. She just wrapped up a production of Steel Magnolias before starting this tour. 

The role is vocally demanding as all that crowing can take a toll on the vocal chords. " I need to sing in a lower voice than my normal pitch, so I need to be very careful not to strain my vocal chords." She makes sure that she limits her social activity between shows, drinks lots of water and smoky rooms are off limits. 

Peter Pan gets a make over

Rigby doesn't just play Pan, this is in part her production, which has been spiffed up especially for this tour. "There are some bright, shiny and new special effects. Tiger Lily hangs from silks Cirque du Soleil style, and the sword fighting is really exciting," she said. "But none of the new things are designed to take you away from the heart of this show. We have assembled a terrific cast as well."

She is super excited about coming to Houston because 15 children from TUTS' Humphreys School of Musical Theatre will appear as some of the lost boys. "It's great for the cast to work with new people."

As for what keeps her engaged after 3,000 flights as the little boy who won't grow up, Rigby has a theory. "We all long for adventure and the innocence of childhood."

"Oh, say hi to your son," Rigby added before saying good bye. "I suppose he grew up."

A sneak peek at Peter Pan

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