As a character, Peter Pan is famously impervious to the ravages of age and to changes in the world beyond Neverland. It’s a different matter, however, when it comes to stage depictions of J.M. Barrie’s creation.
Take the clunkily titled “Cathy Rigby Is Peter Pan,’’ which has arrived at the Citi Wang Theatre for a brief run that ends Sunday, in what is billed as Rigby’s final appearance in a role she has been playing on and off for decades. There was a time when this singing, dancing, flying production of Barrie’s 1904 play, directed by Glenn Casale and costarring Brent Barrett as Captain Hook, might have seemed like something special.
But not anymore. It’s been eclipsed by fresher, more imaginative approaches to the tale of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, such as the exhilarating “Peter Pan’’ presented in Boston two years ago under a tent on City Hall Plaza. That version, performed in the round, employed 360-degree projections that immersed the audience so completely in the experience that it felt like we were soaring right along with Peter. At the other end of the technological spectrum, “Peter and the Starcatcher,’’ currently off-Broadway, awakens a sense of wonder through sheer theatrical ingenuity, using the simplest of props — rope, a ladder, a couple of model ships, a few treasure chests — as it brings Peter’s back story to life. “Starcatcher’’ also makes liberal use of the most invaluable low-tech device of all: wit.
“Cathy Rigby Is Peter Pan,’’ though, is stuck in the mediocre middle. It’s perfectly passable family entertainment, but there are few moments of genuine enchantment.
The enthusiastic opening-night audience, which included many young children, would very much beg to differ (and might even like to feed dissenting critics to the red-eyed crocodile who is hot on Captain Hook’s trail). Moreover, at a time when this city’s spirits could use a lift, Rigby won major points when she cried, “Thank you, thank you, Boston Strong!’’ after the audience helped rescue Tinkerbell from death’s door by clapping their hands and believing.
A former Olympic gymnast who is now 60, Rigby is remarkably agile, able to perform handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults with impressive vigor. During the flying sequences — choreographed by Paul Rubin, and by far the best thing about the show — she spins and swoops against the starry backdrop of John Iacovelli’s set (and, later, out over the delighted
audience) while sprinkling
But her Peter remains earthbound in a larger sense. When you title a show “Cathy Rigby Is Peter Pan,’’ you’ve got to deliver on the “is’’ part. Rigby doesn’t. Her Peter lacks a vivid or even discernible personality. There is zero sense of camaraderie among her and the Lost Boys, and little emotional connection between her and Wendy (well played on opening night by Carly Bracco, substituting for Krista Buccellato, who had laryngitis and is expected to return soon to the show, according to a spokesperson). In tunes like “I Gotta Crow’’ and “Neverland,’’ Rigby’s voice is merely adequate.
In the thankless roles of Mrs. Darling and grown-up Wendy, Kim Crosby is capable, but she makes a more distinctive impression during a brief appearance as a mermaid. As Tiger Lily, Jenna Wright proves an able and energetic dancer and, thankfully, this “Peter Pan’’ largely refrains from the offensive Native American stereotypes that have marred earlier productions of the show. While the song title “Ugg-a-Wugg’’ remains as wince-inducing as ever, at least Peter does not precede that musical number by saying to Tiger Lily, “Let’s smoke ’um peace pipe,’’ as used to be the case.
Much of the onstage charisma is supplied by Barrett, a Broadway veteran who doubles as stuffy, pompous Mr. Darling and the glaring, sputtering Captain Hook. In Barrett’s amusing performance, the red-jacketed, curly-maned Hook is the Rodney Dangerfield of villains: However grand his postures and blood-curdling his threats, he just can’t get no respect from his band of pirates, who are alternately incompetent and insubordinate.
Casale, the director, keeps the energy level high throughout, but there is nonetheless a sense, in scene after scene, that “Peter Pan’’ is just marking time until Rigby can get airborne again. When the star is aloft, she delivers what the audience came to see. But the most resonant moment of the evening for this viewer was Peter’s emotional declaration to Wendy: “I don’t want to grow up and learn about solemn things.’’ Looking around lately, it’s hard to blame him.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.