Review: Warm and unpretentious, ‘Cowboys’ is a rollicking good time

To walk into The New Vic Theatre is to happen upon four dudes dressed as cowhands, sittin’ on bales of hay around an ersatz campfire making beautiful music. Somehow it feels as natural as can be, especially as welcoming as they are to the folks meandering to their seats.

This is “Cowboys: Songs, Stories, and Poems,” a title as from-the-hip as the culture from which it springs, and it’s exactly the kind of audience-oriented, pleasantly melodious, accessibly down-to-earth, folksy Americana we’ve come to love and expect from the wonderful talent at Kalamazoo’s New Vic.

In two acts and 90 minutes, Director/Producer/Designer James Furney along with other familiar New Vic faces Wes Garman, Greg Laux and Shawn Newton — all wearing jeans with cowboy boots and hats — sing an eclectic mix of pretty country ballads and spirited traditional favorites interspersed with humble banter and dramatic readings of largely 19th Century American iambic verse on the subjects of romance, friendship, horses, death and hats. At turns funny, touching, and sad, the arrangements are lovely, and many of them surprising, full of gentle harmonies, accompanied by Furney and Garman on guitar, with a few other tricks up their sleeves.

Highlights include “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” made most famous by Johnny Cash; a very pretty rendition of “Yellow Rose of Texas” led by Laux; a wonderful arrangement of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” with Garman picking and singing lead, Furney gently playing slide, and nice harmonies in the chorus; and “Billy,” Bob Dylan’s ode to Billy the Kid, made purtier than Dylan could have ever dreamed of making it.

And then there’s “that ever-dangerous audience participation portion of the evening,” as Furney called it. “If you don’t know the words, make ‘em up. That’s how we do.”

Spurred on by the gracious and encouraging words of the sweet-voiced cowboys themselves, that’s exactly what folks did. “Buffalo Gals” and “Home on the Range” didn’t sound half bad as a cheerful sing-a-long, and after that, audience members felt more than welcome to sing along with whatever else they pleased. The cowboys didn’t seem to mind. After all, everyone felt pretty cozy around the campfire at that point.

So much so that one particular critic who will remain nameless even hopped up on stage barefoot at intermission to try her hand at a rope trick for the first time. There’s little chance she’ll ever effectively toss that lasso around anything she’d actually like to hog tie, but she sure had fun trying.

Such is the overall effect of this warm evening of entertainment. Unpretentious, joyful, inclusive, and in homage to a time and way of life largely bygone — and to the men who weren’t faint of heart and who led grueling lives because they needed work — with the stories and poems and music that is their legacy. Made especially worthwhile by four men whose passion for that legacy shines through in every note and every tale.

“Cowboys: Songs, Stories, and Poems”
New Vic Theatre
Aug.-10-Sept. 15