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Forever flying Cathy Rigby enjoying last great adventure as immortal Peter Pan

Flying. That's what got "Peter Pan" star Cathy Rigby talking.

"I always have these reoccurring dreams that I forgot my harness and I really think I can fly," Rigby said recently during a telephone interview from a tour stop in Florida. "I float down, but I don't fall. It's almost as if I have to think lovely thoughts. It's very strange."

Flying is not at all like bungee-jumping, Rigby continued. It's more like hopping on an amusement park ride, the kind that mimics weightlessness and the free-floating sensation brought with a little pixie dust.

When Rigby lands at Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday for eight performances of "Peter Pan," she will have logged nearly 3,000 performances as the impish boy who never grows old. In May, when the tour winds down in Portland, Ore., Rigby will likely hang up her harness.

"Saying goodbye to 'Peter Pan' is going to be tough," Rigby said. "I try not to look back and be sad. The closer it gets, the harder it's going to be to not get emotional about it. It's been part of my life for 30 years."

Compare it to retiring a jersey number in the sports world, only in this case Rigby's costume won't be strung over any stage. She'll probably put it in one of those nice window boxes usually reserved for wedding dresses. But maybe -- just maybe -- that move would be premature. First, she pointed out, there's the possibility of performing "Peter Pan" in Europe during the month of June, and then maybe heading to China sometime in 2007.

Like its hyperactive hero, "Peter Pan" appears to carry one story line that does not grow old. The musical version starring Mary Martin and Cyril Richard opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1954. Nine days after the show closed, it aired as a two-hour NBC special that was watched by an estimated 70 million people.

The story takes place in 1902 London, where a young boy wearing green pops in on the Darling family, insisting that Wendy Darling should mother his lost boys of Neverland. A dash of pixie dust takes Peter, Wendy and brothers John and Michael to Neverland, where they encounter Captain Hook.

At age 53, Rigby believes that the time spent raising her own four children has helped her to play a young boy.

"Children are curious," she said. "For the most part, they're dead honest. They're not always politically correct. They're really funny, and when they're shy or afraid, they do all kinds of interesting things that I've been able to use in the character."

Standing just over 5 feet tall, Rigby said her height has also played a role in her success.

"I couldn't do half the things I've done if I weren't the size that I am," she admitted. "The gymnastics or 'Peter Pan.' Did you know Annie Oakley was only 5 feet tall? It's always worked to my advantage. When I'm on an airplane and I look at those people with tall, long legs, I'm much more comfortable."

It was Sandy Duncan who surfaced in the late '70s as Peter Pan. She was followed by Rigby, the two-time Olympic gymnast, who nailed the role like she would a front pike mount on the balance beam.

"I just knew the character," Rigby said. "I understood him immediately, and I remember just being very comfortable with it. Not only the physicality, but Peter used his adventures and sword-fighting and flying to distract himself from life, and I think there was a part of me in that.

"During my gymnastics career, I was so isolated and really didn't have a lot of outside contact," Rigby continued, "and when you look at Peter Pan, he's always kind of alone. It was great therapy."

Rigby also worked as a television gymnastics commentator for 18 years before earning a Tony nomination for "Peter Pan" on Broadway in 1991. She also played Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" and went on to star in "Seussical the Musical" on Broadway and in the national tour.

The current farewell tour of "Peter Pan" began in September 2004 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in Southern California, where Rigby and husband Tom McCoy have been partners for 12 years. Its score -- featuring classics including "I've Got to Crow," "Neverland" and "I'm Flying" -- was a collaboration by Moose Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. John Iacovelli's scenery and Patti Colombo's choreography have made it a favorite of children and adults alike.

Rigby, meanwhile, believes flying is the best show in town.

"The second I take flight, there's almost an audible gasp," she said. "It's an emotional reaction, but the best part is the curtain call when I fly out over the audience. That's when you see wonderful faces, because they're just so elated and spontaneous in their reaction. It's one of the greatest curtain calls you could possibly take."

PREVIEW

WHAT: "Peter Pan"

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. next Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. March 4; 2 and 7 p.m. March 5

WHERE: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

TICKETS: $22.50 to $55 (box office, Ticketmaster)

INFO: www.sheas.org

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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