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Olympic gymnast energizes the timeless story of 'Peter Pan'

After a six-week vacation with her family, Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby is getting her production of "Peter Pan" back on the road. And she says this will be her last tour in the role.

She figures she's performed the role about 2,600 times, "and after so many times, you'd think it would get static. But this is one of the best productions we've done so far — maybe because it's the last one for me."

This time around, she's added a new touch to the show. "I go out into the lobby after the final curtain and sign autographs and merchandise.

"I hear stories about the traditions of people who brought their families to see the show before, to see Mary Martin and others. People are now seeing the show through the eyes of their children and grandchildren. That's exciting.

"The show has evolved. When it becomes effortless, that's the best place for an actress to be, because it allows you to be more creative and that's more enjoyable for everybody."

Meanwhile, Captain Hook has jumped ship, leaving Rigby's family-owned production company to come up with a quick replacement.

It seems that Howard McGillin, who had been playing Captain Hook in the national tour, has been lured back to Broadway (to reprise his title role in "Phantom of the Opera.")

James Clow has been hired to take McGillin's place, but the Salt Lake City engagement — the first on the new leg of the tour — will have an understudy playing Hook.

The "Peter Pan" ensemble also includes a former Utahn — Nathan Balser, a native of Springville who plays Noodler, one of the pirates.

This touring production is co-produced by McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, based in La Mirada, Calif. (where Rigby and her husband operate a 1,200-seat Equity theater), along with the New York City-based Nederlander Organization, among others.

While "Flying by Foy" became legendary during the days of Mary Martin's "Peter Pan," McCoy-Rigby Entertainment utilizes Las Vegas-based ZFX's flying system. "You're only as good as your flyers," said Rigby, "and they really are brilliant. It's almost an art in itself."

Rigby studied theater for seven years and ballet for 12. "I have a lot of respect for those who work at this. It's so different from gymnastics. The training is similar with lots of dedication and hours, but performing (on stage) is so much more of a team effort."

She and her husband use their theater in Southern California to produce eight shows a year, in addition to the shows for their national tours. Currently they're working on an all-new production of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (she won't be in it), as well as "Camelot."

Their 25-year-old son, Ryan, has been playing Nana, the Darling family's English sheepdog.

NATHAN BALSER, a native Utahn who was performing with his wife Suzy in the Las Vegas edition of "Mamma Mia!" joined the "Peter Pan" tour about a year ago.

"Our last stop (before the summer break) was in Charlotte, N.C.," Balser said, "and we knew we were losing a couple of the Lost Boys and one of the pirates, but at that point, Howard McGillin indicated he was coming back as Captain Hook." But it wasn't long before McGillin left the show.

Asked if he could take over the role, Balser was quick to reply, "I'm not old enough or tall enough" to play Hook. So he retains the role of Noodler.

Interviewed by phone from his home in Las Vegas, Balser said that he and his wife are considering a move to New York City to explore "some opportunities there that have not been tapped." "Being separated (while he's on tour and Suzy is still in 'Mamma Mia!') is hard for both of us, because we're really good friends and close to each other. But it's harder for her because she's at home alone every day doing the same job in the same city, while I always have a new place to get used to."

Balser said the audiences for "Peter Pan" "have been really great. You get a sense of the general overall personality of the country

"In the Northwest and up north in the Midwest, they're a little more reserved, but on the West and East Coasts, they're more responsive and crazy. Peter and Hook are the only characters who break the 'fourth wall' and talk directly to the audience."

He added, "Cathy Rigby blows me away. It's such a physical role, and she gives 120 percent. She's an inspiration to all of us and I can't even imagine the demands."


E-mail: ivan@desnews.com