"Try not to text," pleaded the unmistakable voice of Cathy Rigby at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Thursday night. "Tinker Bell will think you're trying to flirt with her."
Ah yes, the flying grandmother likes to move with the times. And having played Peter Pan now for — gasp — pushing 40 years, Rigby well knows the importance of instructing family audiences on how to behave at the theater. Nobody wants to fly out over the orchestra, look down from on high, and see a chorus of jumpy thumbs. One wants shiny, glistening faces and a few tremulously pointing fingers. And then one wants lots of headlines like "Rigby Still Flying High" and "Rigby Still Soars." Just Google her, she still gets 'em.
But aside from that pre-show announcement, "Peter Pan," or to give the official title, "Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan," is an entirely old-school entertainment headlined by an entirely old-school star. And, frankly, in an age when most touring family shows are either cheaply done, based on digital technology, branded around some obnoxious TV show, or all three at once, there is something sweet about this modestly scaled but ample production of the creaky 1954 musical (music by Moose Charlap and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) with its gauzy wings and painted drops, politically incorrect characters (ah yes, Tiger Lily and that "Ugg-a-Wugg" number that kicks off Act 2) and its bus-and-truck sensibility, which I mean as a compliment. Such shows are very rare today — a dying breed, indeed — and if you think your kids have missed out on such charms, well, Rigby is here to offer that retro opportunity that requireth not an app. If you saw Rigby when you were a kid (gasp, again), well now, like Wendy, you can relive your experience through your own children. I would not venture to say it is your last chance, since I seem to recall a Rigby "farewell tour" around 2005, but, well, one never knows in this life.
Perhaps Rigby — who, for the record and since you're likely wondering, is now 60 years old — is actually mortal, unlike the J.M. Barrie character she plays. After staring at her in the air on Thursday night for a good while, you could have fooled me. I asked my eight-year-old son what he thought might be the age of the woman flying, tumbling, spinning, twisting and running upside down through the air, sprinkling fairy dust all the while. He had a few guesses, one of which Rigby would really have liked, and never more than 50 percent of the actual total number of years. Understandably so. Flying is common in the theater; performers who really know how to use those wires, much less so. Rigby's physical capabilities are just astonishing. They are empowering. They make you feel like you might chase off mortality yourself.
Rigby owns this whole production, along with her husband, Tom McCoy. Without corporate bean counters looking to squeeze out another percentage of profit, she's been able to maintain the show's full Equity status (Brent Barrett, who plays Captain Hook, is a fine Broadway performer) and the complete orchestra in the pit. The youngsters are very lively — Jenna Wright, as the aforementioned Tiger Lily, dances up a storm, albeit with Rigby right up there with her. This is no revisionist look at the many weird themes in a piece that always comes with a strange and slightly creepy vibe, despite the myriad versions I've seen over the years, with or without music or star catchers or flashlight Tinker Bells. Rigby's show downplays all of that, adds a few kid-friendly physical gags and emphasizes the show's catchy numbers ("I'm Flying, "Neverland").
But despite all my misgivings about Barrie's work, I've come to look forward to the strangeness of a show with its congealed mother/daughter/lover metaphors, its sad heart reflecting the horrors of Victorian parenting, and wherein the heroine happily packs off her beloved daughter with no assurance she may ever see her again. Most notably, Rigby's definitive Peter Pan, now and may it be forever, embodies the hold that its central character has over the children that lurk within us all.
When: Through Feb. 10
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com