Theater Feature: PETER PAN (national tour)

Post image for Theater Feature: PETER PAN (national tour)

by Tony Frankel on January 14, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

PETER PAN AND CATHY RIGBY
HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON:
THEY WON’T GROW UP

When the musical fantasy adaptation of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan landed on Broadway in 1954, it received rave reviews. Critics were high on Mary Martin as the boy who leads the three Darling children into Never Land where they encounter the calculating Captain Hook, pernicious pirates, indulgent Indians, a cunning crocodile and a plotting pixie. Ironically, the terrific tunes were called out for being less 1904 Barrie-esque and more Tin Pan Alley (we should be lucky enough to have such wonderful songs written for the theater today), but everyone agreed that the show eschewed excessive sentimentality and ended up being “inventive,” “delightful,” and “a rapturous lyrical experience.” Richard Watts at the Post was so swept up with the high spirits that he even liked “the Lost Child with spectacles who looked disturbingly like Truman Capote.”

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

Yet with all of the raves, Peter Pan – which did indeed turn a profit – only ran 149 performances. The show was developed as part of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Opera series, and the musical had been sold to NBC during its Los Angeles tryout; the Broadway run was thus terminated for a contracted live telecast of the musical. Presented as part of the anthology series Producers’ Showcase, the Jerome Robbins-directed spectacle was presented directly from NBC studios without an audience. It was the first full-length Broadway production on color TV and attracted a then-record audience of 65-million viewers. The subsequent live restagings and rebroadcasts firmly ensconced Martin as the only Pan for the Great White Way.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

(From the Out-of-Town Tryouts Department: In case you have wondered why there are five songwriters, Robbins began with the relatively unknown composer/lyricist team of Mark “Moose” Charlap and Carolyn Leigh for a few songs, but as the project’s possibilities blossomed, he turned to the recognized trifecta of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green for additional tunes which were hurriedly supplied on the road. In fact, Robbins turned to them again just after Peter Pan as well, and the result was Bells Are Ringing (1956), which starred Judy Holliday and ran for 924 performances. By the way, the book for Peter Pan was uncredited.)

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

It was a risk to revive Peter Pan in the decades that followed for two reasons. The first is that millions, who had already seen it for free on television, associated it only with Martin. Second, some of the tunes were simply plopped in and have nothing to do with the story, making the narrative sketchy. Most conspicuous is the incongruous “Mysterious Lady” number, which has an actress dressed as a boy (Pan) dressed as a gypsy woman seducing an effeminate man (Hook); the operetta-styled parody was written for Tony-winners Martin and co-star Cyril Ritchard’s comedic talents. Hence, without a perfect Pan to balance what turns out to be a jumbled musical, the risk to revive was reasonable.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

But when Sandy Duncan flew into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (in a production which had its roots in a Dallas summer stock outing), the gamble paid off. 1979 Broadway critics who may have been disquieted by the show’s flaws had nothing but praise for the lithe Duncan, whose Peter was youthful, sweet, somewhat naïve and, above all, actually boyish – an interpretation never intended by Martin. You can see Duncan’s sweetness and openness while singing “Never Land” (notice who introduces her in the video), and her astounding athleticism in “Ugg-a-Wugg,” recorded at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Audiences – including myself – were so mesmerized by the inherent magic of the story and Duncan’s swaggering vulnerability that any weaknesses in the show’s construction were overlooked, and it ran for an astounding 550 performances.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

Then in 1986, former Olympic gymnast and sports commentator Cathy Rigby took on the role of Peter at Long Beach Civic Light Opera and astounded any naysayers – including myself – who saw it as a mere casting ploy (Rigby also played Peter in a 1974 NBC Arena Touring Production using dubbed voices). Four years later, she ended up on Broadway and astounded me with an even stronger interpretation of Pan than at Long Beach. She was a true tomboy: Youthful, spunky, energetic, occasionally obnoxious, and a bit of a bully (Linda Winer of New York Newsday said, “She has the pug quality of a young James Cagney”). Rigby was also down-to-earth with a brittle interior. Just as important, changes were made in the script, including the eradication of “Mysterious Lady.”

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

Well, the rest is history. Since 1990, Rigby (Tony-nominated Best Actress in a Musical) has flown above the boards more than 3000 times, both on tour, four stops on Broadway, and at the theater she calls home: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, where director Glenn Casale and choreographer Patti Colombo reimagined the 1954 Broadway musical in 1998. Also, Rigby flips, twirls and soars like no Pan before her, aided by master aerial flight designer Paul Rubin, a.k.a. “The Fly Guy.”

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

Rigby, who turned 60 last December, officially retired as Peter a few years ago, but – with new and improved flying and sword fights – she’s back (although I can safely say this really is her final tour) and as agile as ever. In fact, it’s a little freaky that Rigby looks so amazingly young on stage, as if playing the role of a boy who won’t grow up actually keeps her young, like a reverse The Picture of Dorian Gray. Her voice may not be quite as lyrical as her co-stars’ – Broadway veteran Brent Barrett, who will lend his comic chops and lyric baritone to the role of Hook, and Kim Crosby, one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw on stage as Cinderella in the original Into the Woods, as Mrs. Darling – the diminutive star can definitely hold her own. In fact, Rigby has drawn in throngs to the point that the tour, which plays for two weeks at the Pantages, is officially named Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan. Or should the title be the other way around?

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema Feature of Peter Pan Tour and Broadway L.A. Pantages Theatre Los Angeles

photos by Michael Lamont and Isaac James

Peter Pan
national tour at the Hollywood Pantages
plays January 15 – 27, 2013
for tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit Pantages

tour through April 28, 2013
for dates, cities, and tickets, visit Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jane Thalken January 31, 2013 at 2:12 am

When I first saw the title (though I did remember the ’86 show) I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Scrooged with Mary Lou Retton playing a tumbling Tiny Tim. But reading this I sure have new respect for Rigby. Forget diets and hormones — eight shows a week would do it; I believe!
p.s. I love all the background bio answering my questions, thanks.

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