Carly Bracco: Thinking Lovely Thoughts About Growing Up to Play Peter Pan

BY CARY GINELL

Most people never come close to realizing a lifelong dream, but that’s not the case with Carly Bracco. The Conejo Valley native graduated from Thousand Oaks High School 11 years ago and went on to graduate from UCLA’s musical theater program. Today she stars as Elsa in Disneyland’s live musical production of Frozen at the Anaheim-based theme park but currently is flying on a cloud close to Neverland as she prepares to play the title role in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s new production of Peter Pan. The show makes its debut July 14 on the first night of a 10-show run. We spoke to Carly after a performance by Cabrillo singers, past and present, at the annual TGIF kickoff concert at Westlake Village’s Civic Center.

VCOS: So tell us, is playing Peter Pan a dream come true for you?

CARLY: Very much so. It all started back when I was a little girl, about five or six years old, and I was a gymnast – or a wanna-be gymnast. My mom bought me this VHS tape called Gymnastics’ Greatest Stars and Cathy Rigby was on it. I knew her balance beam routine by heart and I wanted to be her. Well one day, my mom said, “Hey, do you want to go see your hero in a play?” And I said, “OK, let’s go to a play!” I had no idea what plays were. So she took me to the Pantages to see Peter Pan. I didn’t know you could do things other than gymnastics and I was mesmerized watching her. I couldn’t believe it. How was she doing all these things? And that sparked the theater bug and the singer in me and encouraged me to want to do more. Fast forward about 18 years. I’m standing on stage at the Pantages doing a sound check as the understudy for Wendy in the national tour of Peter Pan, STARRING Cathy Rigby. I was playing Tootles and Jane in the show. So I was standing there, center stage, singing into the house, and I suddenly started bawling. Cathy was out in the audience and she came up to me and said, “What are you looking at?” I said, “I sat right there where you’re sitting and watched you do this and now I’m here doing this with you.” She gave me a big hug and said, “Oh, that’s so sweet” and she was so wonderful to me. So this show has come full circle for me. I ended up playing Wendy and I was actually the last Wendy that Cathy ever had, so she means a lot to me.

VCOS: What else makes this show special to you?

CARLY: Well, it introduced me to my fiancé, who I’m marrying in August. He works for ZFX as a flyer and flew Cathy and me in the show. So to do this show, to finally play Peter, a role that I always thought I was right for, but by circumstance only got to play Wendy, is quite special.

VCOS: So you’re in the national tour, playing opposite Cathy in these different roles. You’re studying her, aren’t you?

CARLY: Evvvrything she did I studied! Not only as a performer, but as a person, I find her to be one of the most professional and lovely people I’ve ever met. I’m constantly inspired by her. I never want to be a copycat. I’m me and I take pride in who I am and what I bring to the table, however, I was very much inspired by Cathy. In our Lost Boy work that we would do together, we would talk all the time about the behind-the-scenes stuff, the stories, and talk about these boys that had no parents and how we were each other’s family and the life-and-death situation of it, so I’m just grateful that I had that Neverland boot camp. I don’t think I would ever have been considered for Peter if I hadn’t gotten to experience all of that and get all that information from the tour, from the book itself, and from all the research I did back then.

VCOS: On the surface, these are storybook characters. It’s really just a fairy tale, but there’s more depth to these characters and this story than meets the eye, isn’t there?

CARLY: Very much so. It’s not just that Peter’s this fanciful boy who flies. No, he’s a symbol for youth, for joy, for freedom, for all these things that we want to keep. And the Darling family and Wendy symbolize order and structure and following things by the book. What’s interesting is that both Peter and Wendy are fascinated by each other: Wendy, who is by-the-book, and Peter, who is not. Peter is fascinated by the book but Wendy is fascinated by Peter, and it’s finding the happy medium, finding the balance between those two things, and I’d like to think that if Peter Pan were still flying around today and would come to the window, he would be more of a balanced version of youth and joy and freedom and that’s why society is more balanced. It’s because of Peter.

VCOS: Playing Wendy, were you familiar with the flying apparatus?

CARLY: I am very familiar with it, yes. I did lots of flying playing Wendy and also Jane, but I would say that I’m very proficient at flying right now, and also since my fiancée is one of the head flyers on the tour, so I figured I had to get good at it, otherwise I’d get made fun of. One of our best friends, Paul Rubin, who helped created ZFX and choreographed all the flying for the original Peter Pan, always kept me honest and always made sure I was doing the right things and had the right techniques. So I feel that I have been very well trained for this.

VCOS: I know that you said before that I don’t like to be a copycat, but were there any little nuances that Cathy Rigby used in her portrayal that you have borrowed and use in your characterization?

CARLY: I try not to. If I find myself doing it, I steer away from it, only because I don’t want to steal from her. It’s her intellectual property and I don’t want to take from that. I want to be inspired by it. I would say that I have a likeness to her in terms of the youthfulness and the boyish nitty gritty of it and have found a really good balance between how I play it and how she played it. I would research little boys by watching her grandson, because he played Michael in one of the last times I did it, and I noticed how honest and how “rough and tough” he was, so I was inspired by that because she taught me how to do that. She taught me how to find the art and inspiration behind it. So I don’t have necessarily mimic her.

VCOS: Last question. You’re up there on stage, playing Peter Pan for the first time. Other than your family and your fiancé, who do you want to see, front and center, in the audience.

CARLY: Well, of course I would want Cathy to be there, but I would for anybody who was ever involved in that tour or was ever involved in Peter Pan to be there, because we are one big family. Anyone who has ever done Peter Pan leaves a family because it has that effect on people. It connects with everyone’s youth and your inner child in such a way that I want to see any face that I’ve ever done this play with before, or anyone else who has done it, because they know how special it is. When that set breaks away and I go up in the air, I see this star drop behind me – it doesn’t get much better than that in terms of theater magic, so I’m kind of looking forward to anyone who’s taken the Neverland journey to be out there with me.

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Peter Pan plays from July 14 to July 23 at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.

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