Both horse and rider were nervous.
So on a cool morning along a woodsy trail in Stillwater, charismatic theater phenom David Murray drew on what he knew. Singing a lilting number from “Les Misérables,” his buttery tenor soothed the mount, a majestic black stallion named El Dante.
Murray, 29, is accustomed to winning over bigger audiences. He wowed capacity crowds at the Ritz Theater this fall with his heart-rending portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr., who dies in a hail of police gunfire in Theatre Latté Da’s riveting “Ragtime.” He made a splash at small Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo this spring as an empathetic black sergeant in “Violet,” the musical that brought him to the Twin Cities from New York.
Now he is about to sing, waltz and hold court for 60,000 theatergoers expected to see him as the Prince in Children’s Theatre Company’s holiday revival of “Cinderella,” which opens Friday.
The show’s director already finds Murray charming.
“We first fell in love with his beautiful voice, of course, but David has great emotional access, a wonderful comic ability, and is a joy to work with,” said director Peter Brosius.
Adapted by the late John B. Davidson from Charles Perrault’s 17th-century retelling of the rags-to-royalty folk tale, CTC’s pantomime take on “Cinderella” has been a signature production for the company since 1966. It has mounted the show 16 times — more than any other — and enthralled generations of youngsters, many dressed up in princess outfits.
The star is Traci Allen Shannon, who played Cinderella three years ago to wide acclaim. Both Cinderella and the Prince are African-American in a production marked by contrasts.
Their characters are quiet and straight while Cinderella’s stepfamily is gaudy and garish. Reed Sigmund and Dean Holt play the piggish stepsisters and Autumn Ness the priggish stepmother. Their over-the-top antics are straight out of the English panto tradition, with pretend steeds pulling Cinderella’s coach.
A wild ride
In real life at Carisbrooke Farm in Stillwater, Murray looked the royal part astride Dante, a proud, swaggering Friesian, descended from medieval warhorses.
With their graceful posture, bulging muscles and long, flowing mane, Friesians are regarded as fairy-tale horses.
“It’s like riding a Mercedes that’s alive,” Murray said.
Murray wanted to go riding because, well, he had ridden a horse on a beach in Mexico — “that was an overgrown donkey compared to Dante” — and wanted to take in the brilliant colors of his first Minnesota fall. The imaginative folks at CTC liked the idea, and voilà! He was suited up as Prince Charming, complete with blue-bowed shoes.
“This all feels like a magical fairy tale,” he said of the experience, words that also apply to his recent life.
Born in Jackson, Miss., to parents who are ministers, Murray never dreamed of a career singing and acting onstage. A saxophone player and pianist as a youngster, he hoped to become a band director. But a theater teacher at Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wis., where his family relocated in the middle of his high school career, changed his trajectory.
The teacher, Holly Stanfield, saw something in Murray that he did not see in himself, and asked him to audition for the school musical, “Les Misérables.”
“He immediately impressed us with his amazing singing voice but even more importantly with his quiet strength and his ability to reach out honestly and positively to all of his classmates,” Stanfield said.
She cast him as Enjolras, the rifle-hoisting leader of the French Revolution. It was Murray’s first theater role.
“She brought out my latent drive to tell stories onstage,” he said.
Stanfield’s star pupil won a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a program he liked because it integrates all of the performance disciplines — music, theater, dance and acting.
After graduation, he threw himself in the cutthroat world of New York theater. His biggest role was in an off-Broadway production of the election-season comedy “Vote for Me,” playing the First Husband to a Hillary Clinton-esque character.
But Murray missed the Midwest and started checking audition notices for the Twin Cities. He tried out for Yellow Tree via Skype.
“When they met me in person, they were glad I wasn’t crazy or a serial killer,” he said, laughing.
‘You want to be in his corner’
His performance in “Violet” got him noticed by “Ragtime” director Peter Rothstein, who knows just about all the musical theater talent in town.
“David checks all the craft boxes for vocal power, range and technique to do a demanding role night after night,” said Rothstein. “He handles spoken text beautifully and has that easy charisma that can’t be taught. But what sets him apart is that he exudes such dignity and honesty — you want to be in his corner.”
In “Ragtime,” Murray acted opposite his “Cinderella” co-star. He is happy to be paired again with Shannon, a luminous singer in her own right.
“David’s got a strong voice, of course, but he’s also a very generous scene partner,” she said. “On our main duet in ‘Ragtime’ — ‘Wheel of a Dream’ — he did the heavy lifting and my voice just floated on top of his.”
While Murray has quickly made fans in the Twin Cities, his original thought was to explore Minnesota’s theater mecca, not settle in it.
He’s turning 30 in May and feels some urgency about that milestone. Kenosha, where his mother, father and little brother live, is 5½ hours from Minneapolis but only 70 minutes away from Chicago. And he continues to pay rent on an apartment in New York.
Twin Cities directors are encouraging him to sign a long-term lease here. Brosius joked that he’ll take Murray’s passport.
“The welcome here has been extraordinary,” Murray marveled. “I can tell you, it’s not like that in New York.”
Talk to the animals
Back on the trail, Murray continued serenading his equine audience with tunes from “Les Miz” and “Hamilton” as Dante swished his luxuriant tail.
“He performs better with music,” said Vicki Hartman, owner of Carisbrooke Farm.
When Murray dismounted, the horse nudged the actor, communicating silently. Both seemed lit by the experience.
As he took his leave, Murray saw a Vietnamese potbellied pig snorting for attention. Her name was Stella, after the character in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Murray paused, cozying up for a selfie with the pig. “She’s soooo cute,” he cooed.
Just one more creature to fall under Murray’s spell.