From the magical moment when Cathy Rigby catapults through the Darling nursery room windows, trailing glittering pixie dust in her jet stream, she's the epitome of J.M. Barrie's immortal boy who wouldn't grow up. She gives this mythic world-renowned character a feisty all-American can-do spin, flip and handspring, making Master Peter Pan her own. It's a definitive reading, and she's an utter joy. Presented by Theatre Under the Stars, this recently refurbished touring edition of the classic Jerome Robbins production (1954), which starred Broadway immortal Mary Martin, retains all the youthful spirit and bounce of the original — and then some.
By 1954, choreographer Robbins was the "it" boy of the moment, with a string of acclaimed works for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and three hit Broadway shows as dance master: On the Town, Call Me Madam and The King and I. The Pajama Game, his subsequent must-see show, opened while Pan was in rehearsals. Martin, basking in the glow from South Pacific, had been contracted for the role of Peter and insisted on Robbins as guiding light. It was one of the wisest moves of her career. Robbins brought fresh, childlike glee to the material along with a savvy showbiz energy.
When West Coast previews proved unsatisfactory to all backers — NBC being the major producer, who wanted Pan to be telecast "in living color" on its Producers' Showcase — the original score by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh was augmented by Broadway vets Jule Styne and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (whose "Never Never Land" added an extra non-Barrie "never" to make the line scan). The show fell into place, bursting with childlike wonder, vaudeville comedy and Broadway know-how.
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This recent production follows its immediate predecessors' cuts and recensions: no sedan chair for Hook, no enchanted animals, no sneakers for Tiger Lily, replacing her all-American Indian footwear for a Vegas-inspired Tiger Lily (Jenna Wright) surrounded by Cirque du Soleil Indians. While the show's been pared down, it still retains its great bones. The flying's been amped up so Rigby can somersault while zooming overhead, which is great fun to watch, and Hook (a droll Brent Barrett got up as a Restoration buccaneer) is much less of a fop, delightfully wicked with that dashing charm that Barrie gave him: He curses with "split me infinitives" and "bicarbonate of soda." The nursery still breaks away with wonder as the children fly off on their adventures, and, yes, we're still implored "to clap our hands if we believe in fairies" to save the life of Tinker Bell. The show throws one back into childhood without apology.
Then there is the phenomenon that is Cathy Rigby. In press-agent jargon, she is Peter Pan. A veritable blaze of energy, her husky voice is boy-friendly as she eats up every inch of the stage. She's afire, a tiny toned ball of determination and grit. She doesn't walk over the stage, she tumbles, vaults, springs, balances and cartwheels. She's on constant boil. If her boundless electricity could be harnessed, she could light up downtown for a decade. Miss Rigby turned 60 last week during the run and remains a force of nature. She's said this is her last outing as Peter, but she's never been more alive than now. She sings, dances and flies with fearless abandon. "I am youth, joy and freedom," she boasts to Hook before their ultimate showdown. We believe her! (A word of advice: If you scurry out before the curtain call, you'll miss her greatest stunt. It's well worth waiting for.)
Her spirit of ageless adventure infects the entire cast. Standouts include the aforementioned Barrett (a tony, almost sexy Hook who also doubles — in Pan theatrical tradition — as exasperated Mr. Darling), Krista Buccellato (Wendy), Lexy Baeza (stuffy John in nightshirt and top hat), James Leo Ryan (toady Smee), Dane Wagner (a sprightly Slightly), Kim Crosby (a fetching Mrs. Darling and, then, grown-up Wendy in the touching last scene), and Clark Roberts (nurturing sheepdog Nana with mobcap, as well as an adroit, scampering Crocodile). The refurbished sets are faithful and a tad more pastel than I remember from past productions, with lovely new show curtains and scrims painted with Art Nouveau swirls and tendrils. Patti Colombo's choreography retains some appreciative nods to Robbins, and the "Ugg-a-Wugg" drum dance remains a showstopper of stomping rhythm and clicking drumsticks. Under Glenn Casale's smooth direction, this new production glides by as if oiled, or on wires.
Sad little James M. Barrie turned his obsessions about youth into the stuff of legend. He had no idea that his "lost boy" would rocket into the world's consciousness with such abiding power. Robbins, along with his sterling co-workers, turned Pan's tale into musical Broadway legend, while the talented Ms. Rigby & Co. keep Barrie's dream stirringly alive for today's children of all ages.