As he wrote words for Richard Rodgers' "South Pacific" music, Oscar Hammerstein II might have had a sprite like Cathy Rigby in mind when assigning altitude and avoirdupois to the vivacious, petite female celebrated in the song "Honey Bun."
Note the parallels: "a hundred and one pounds of fun" and "only 60 inches high" and "every inch is packed with dynamite."Rigby was not the inspiration for "Honey Bun," however, because she was not yet born when "South Pacific" was written. But this does not stop her from belting the number nightly at Casa Manana theater, where Rigby opened this week in "South Pacific."
The show is the latest stop on a tour of the American musical comedy idiom that Rigby began in 1981 as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." She had achieved world fame 13 years earlier as a teenage gymnast, becoming the first American woman to win a medal in world competition. When she shifted her career from athletics to entertainment, she took along her Olympian regimen of coaching and practice by studying voice and acting for seven years before her professional debut in "Wizard of Oz."
"I didn't know how to do anything else but train," said Rigby, chuckling. "But, yes, I pretty much knew how to apply myself and get where I wanted to be. Gymnastics is, of course, performing. When I would compete, there was always a performer there. On the other hand, I used to be so nervous that I'd almost cry when I gave a book report in school."
Sitting for an interview during her lunch break from rehearsals last week, Rigby waited for a Casa staff member to bring her a vegetarian sandwich from a nearby submarine shop.
"I'll eat a burger now and then," she said. "And at home I might put a steak on the barbecue grill. I really watch what I eat while I'm rehearsing and performing, though. This show is so active. I need so much energy. I did `South Pacific' two months ago in Houston, but this production has a lot more choreography."
Rigby became nutrition-conscious after fighting the weight battle that many gymnasts traditionally face.
"When I was in competition, there wasn't the understanding of nutrition that there is now," she said. "I hit that time, at 15, when you're growing and you need to eat. But your coach says don't eat, so you get pushed into those patterns that ballerinas also face of maintaining a weight that's so unreasonable."
Rigby discussed the July 26 death of 22-year-old American gymnast Christy Henrich, who suffered from the eating disorders of bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
"I suffered from anorexia and bulimia for 12 years," Rigby said. "It was a devastating time in my life. That's why I feel so bad about Christy."
Knowledge about nutrition and eating disorders is not the only aspect of Olympic sports that is different now than in Rigby's heyday. Responding to a reporter's reference to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair, Rigby said: "I have seen coaches throw chairs, but nothing like what goes on today. There's such fierce competition in sports, so much more at stake than when I was competing. And there's so much violence in the country. I did get some letters, though, saying stuff like, `I hope you fall off the equipment.' That makes you afraid, and makes you wonder why people feel that way."
Incredibly for someone who still looks Peter Pan-esque, Rigby is the mother of an entering college freshman. Thomas Buckley Mason is listed on Rigby's biography sheet as "Bucky." But his mother, bless her insight, has started referring to him as "Buck."
"Buck wants to study music," Rigby said. "I said that was fine, but my condition for paying the tuition bills is that he get a business degree, too."
While Buck is home packing for Chapman College, his siblings - Ryan Mason, Theresa McCoy and Kaitlin McCoy - are with their mother on the "South Pacific" minitour. (The show will travel from Fort Worth to Casa Manana's cousin theater in Beverly, Mass.)
After the Massachusetts run, Rigby will return home to Fullerton, Calif., where she'll again do "Wizard of Oz" for the production company she runs with husband, Tom McCoy. Also on tap from McCoy Rigby Entertainment are "To Kill A Mockingbird," starring Bruce Davison as Atticus Finch, and "The Belle of Amherst," starring Amanda Plummer as Emily Dickinson.
And is there life for Cathy Rigby, actor, after Dorothy and Nellie?
"I would like to try something original," she said, "and I'd like to do a straight play, a nonmusical. I'd like to do something that's - oh, I hate to use the expression - reality-based, to test myself. I don't know, maybe there's a `Saint Joan' for me down the line."