TAMPA — You've got to hand it to Cathy Rigby. Sure, the former Olympic gymnast is pushing 60, but she's still more thrilling when airborne than the other iconic Peter Pans of recent generations— Mary Martin (a mere 47 when she last performed the role in 1960) and Sandy Duncan — and she's no slouch as an actor-singer, either. In fact, you could argue that from a purely theatrical standpoint, Rigby, with her husky voice and muscular build, is better suited to play the tomboy from Neverland who never wanted to grow up.
Peter Pan is an ideal first musical for kids, and the touring show that opened Tuesday night at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts does not disappoint, right from the pleasantly old-fashioned overture. The score (with no fewer than five lyricists and composers credited) is well served by a decent-sized orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson. Nor have producers (Rigby and her husband, Tom McCoy) stinted on supporting talent. The cast features Broadway star Tom Hewitt as that delightfully villainous Restoration fop, Captain Hook, and Krista Buccellato as a sweetly self-possessed Wendy Darling, whom Peter spirits away from Edwardian London to be a "mother" to the Lost Boys.
Rigby's supreme athleticism is on display as Peter announces himself in the spunky ballad, I Gotta Crow, her rendition punctuated by a cartwheel, handstand, flip and other acrobatic feats. And it is an exhilarating moment when the sprite in green tights and the Darling children, having been sprinkled with fairy dust and thinking lovely thoughts, take off for their aerial quartet in I'm Flying, zooming out the nursery window and upward to the "second star on the right, and straight on till morning." The speed and intricate movement of Rigby's flying is breathtaking.
Hewitt's Hook never fails to amuse, especially in his rousing number as "the swiniest swine in the world." There's a touch of droll camp to Hook's rebuke to his men — "You'd think you never waltzed on a pirate ship before" — that is priceless.
Director Glenn Casale and choreographer Patti Colombo staged this revival, and they have done a good job of capturing the spirit of the 1954 original, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The Robbins stamp is notably evident in the character of Tiger Lily, the dancey Indian warrior played by Jenna Wright. Ugg-a-Wugg, the percussion duet for Tiger Lily and Peter at the opening of Act 2, is a blast.
One of the witty aspects of Peter Pan is how several actors have multiple roles (as in J.M. Barrie's original play). Not only does the excellent Kim Crosby play Mrs. Darling, but she is also the grown-up Wendy and the Mermaid. In addition to Hook, Hewitt plays Mr. Darling. Clark Roberts portrays both the red-eyed Crocodile and the Darling family's nursemaid dog, Nana.
While kids love the playful, innocent, joyous antics of Peter Pan, adults relate to the emotional tug of the ending, when Wendy can't return to Neverland with Peter. Now "ever so much more than 20," with a daughter of her own, she's too old.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.