The Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Make Me a Cowboy will appeal to anyone who likes pure, wholesome, clean-humored comedy that's light on plot and heavy on friendly cowboys and public-domain cowboy-themed songs. While that "anyone" does not include me, I at least recognize the earnestness in playwright and director Don Bailey Bryant's effort to present a decent show, and Make Me a Cowboy certainly made for a good time for Friday's audience, many of whom sang along to a good number of ditties and seemed pleased with the production.
The show, which is set in the 1890s, is overtly simple, centered on a group of cowpokes and herders singing and telling stories in an effort to save the Jumpin' J Dude Ranch. Their performances are sold as being part of a weekend retreat for Easterners - meaning the audience members - to learn how to be cowboys. Woven into that plot is an engagement between a herdsman and the ranch owner's daughter, one threatened by the cowboy not asking his potential bride-to-be's father for permission to marry his daughter.
There is a lot of exposition in Bryant's script; he takes quite a bit of time explaining characters, the situation on the ranch, and the fact that we're at a retreat. The engagement plot, meanwhile, isn't introduced until about two-thirds of the way into the first act, and while the father-of-the-bride subplot is introduced shortly thereafter, there's still exposition regarding his character a few scenes into the second act.
Overall, Bryant's song choices make sense for the show, and I like the idea of weaving public-domain works into an original script, creating a new musical out of existing material. However, with the exception of a few numbers by Kevin Kurth and new lyrics (by Shannon Sturgis) added to some of the familiar songs, the concept of using many of the songs to further the storyline is a tad strained. Instead of flowing with the plot, the tunes oftentimes seem meant to explain something, but their actual delivery comes across as through the story is stopping for moments of performance. (This does, however, work in the context of the cowboys performing a show to save the ranch, and the flow is at least consistent, rather than being stunted by the song breaks.)
The cast, far more often than not, matches the happy tone of the script, and even the characters' dirtiest digs at each other seem to be made in good fun. (Their threats of shooting one another had me expecting someone to pull out a squirt gun rather than firing bullets.) All of the eight actors are noteworthy for some aspect of their performances, though a few do stand out. Tom Naab's Alistair, the highfalutin brother of the ranch's owner, couldn't be more amiable, and is most amusing in his stumbling, drunken state. Janell Just adds just enough hints of tomboyish-ness to make it clear that her Annie, who's just returned to her father's ranch from finishing school, isn't quite finished. Jon Schweppe offers the most nuance of the bunch, with his Tommy's overprotective frustration at Annie's engagement. And Bryan Woods wipes away all of the condescending, grandly postured, clear and crisp diction that made his turn as Pozzo in 2010's Waiting for Godot at the Harrison Hilltop Theatre unmissable, portraying his cowpoke Knuckles as a likable oaf with a delightful drawl.
The cowboys are also dressed in some impressive duds created by costume designer Stephanie Naab, with a good mix of maroons, blues, blacks, and different colors of leather. While well-made by Naab, the clothing is also clean and obviously new, which doesn't match the repeated promise to the audience members that we'll soon have "dust up to [our] armpits" like real cowboys. (And though a minor point, I doubt sparkly-lined cowboy hats existed in the 1890s.)
With such a minor plot and only minor variance in the characterizations, I couldn't help but let my mind wander a bit, imagining how the script would play with actors portraying grittier, more realistic cowboys. My conclusion: I'm not sure Bryant's words would work in any other way than with clean, amicable, cheery cowhands speaking them. Plus, on top of the amiability of the piece, there's also a sense of familiarity to the show that's pleasing. While I couldn't sing along with my fellow audience members on most of the numbers, I did at least know a few of the tunes, and the feel of the musical inspired pleasant memories of theme-park performances and church pageants from my youth.
For tickets and information, call (309)762-0330 or visit Playcrafters.com.