Third Rail Modernizes “The Music Man”

The theater company’s new production features an all female and nonbinary cast.

Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s magnificent production of Meredith Willson’s iconic musical The Music Man is its highest-profile play since before the pandemic. As you watch, it’s hard to tell who is more excited to be back at the theater: the audience or the cast and crew.

While The Music Man encourages ticketholders to grab props and costume pieces as they enter, its electric energy comes from a cast of all female and nonbinary-identifying actors (Kymberli Colbourne, Crystal Ann Muñoz, Dru Rutledge, Maeve Stier, Madeleine Tran, Tara Velarde) who act, sing and toggle between different characters flawlessly.

Muñoz stars as Professor Harold Hill, who isn’t actually a professor (he’s what we’d call a scam artist today). Armed with a suitcase and plenty of charm, Harold descends upon River City, Iowa, determined to convince the townspeople to cough up money to fund a boys’ marching band he claims he’ll conduct (in reality, he’s musically illiterate).

Harold’s reasoning is seductive: He argues the town can prevent gang activity if its young ne’er-do-wells channel their energy into his band. What the people of River City don’t know is that he plans to swindle everyone out of their money for band instruments he can’t even teach their children to play—and be long gone before anyone catches on.

Countless beloved actors have played Harold Hill, including Robert Preston, Matthew Broderick and, most recently, Hugh Jackman. Yet Muñoz plays Harold so easily it seems as if the role were written for her. From the first lines, she projects such confidence that it’s easy to momentarily imagine she and Harold are one and the same.

Of course, a Harold Hill is only as good their Marian Paroo. A skeptical librarian who is not so smitten with Harold as her neighbors, Marian (Dru Rutledge) initially refuses to buy what he’s selling. It’s a tricky role (she’s both Harold’s foil and his possible lover), but Rutledge showcases all of Marian’s personality traits with ease, from her steadfastness to her longing to her empathy.

Rutledge shines especially brightly while singing “Goodnight My Someone”: “Sweet dreams be yours, dear/If dreams there be/Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.” The words alone are enough to touch the heart, but Rutledge’s vocal range makes the music downright operatic. As you listen, it’s difficult not to cry.

The supporting actors, who transition smoothly from character to character throughout the play, are equally superb. It can’t be easy to embody both the mayor of River City and the mayor’s wife in a single scene, but the performers make such transformations seem effortless, deepening your appreciation of their talents.

In any year, The Music Man (directed by Isaac Lamb) would be a palpable, intelligent and fun play from a hardworking cast and crew. Yet in 2022, it’s a much-needed distraction from a world awash in trauma.

Third Rail’s production proves that The Music Man was never just a delightfully fast-paced and jaunty adventure. As Harold is gradually redeemed through his love for Marian, the play becomes a reminder of how bad can be transformed into good—a reminder the world desperately needs right now.

SEE IT: The Music Man plays at CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 503-220-2646, cohoproductions.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through July 3. $25-$45; pay what you will for anyone who identifies as BIPOC (promo code: BIPOC).

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