"I have five children. They're all girls except four of them."
I would have let you enjoy that joke yourself, in The Cowboy Christmas Carol starring Waddie Mitchell, but it also appears in Mitchell's bio in the program — so I figure I'm not ruining too much. Plus, there are so many genuine laughs during Mitchell's performance that even spoiling one doesn't upset the show on the whole.
(Before seeing the show or reading this brief review, you may want to check out Kirsten Akens' interview with Mitchell, where the real-life cowboy talks about his unique upbringing and events such as Vietnam that greatly impacted him.)
The show's first hour consists entirely of Mitchell, at the microphone alone, sharing both his own and popular poems with brief personal stories in between. The manner in which he seamlessly drifts between the two — dropping the mic intermittently to allow for applause — gives it more of a stage-performance feel than merely a poetry reading vibe. Though there's a stool and tree stump on stage, Mitchell rarely sits still long on either one.
He's a fiery performer with expert delivery and a charming style that, of course, relies heavily on the cowboy persona. Hearing Robert W. Service's 1907 classic "The Cremation of Sam McGee" via Mitchell is a show highlight, as is his rendition of Wallace McRae's hilarious "Reincarnation."
The entire first half of the evening, prior to intermission, thoroughly entertains.
But when Mitchell returns to the stage to present his adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with the help of veteran TheatreWorks player Tom Paradise and former Colorado Springs Symphony and Chamber Orchestra of the Springs musician Randy Fisher, the bronco starts to buck the cool cowboy a bit.
Though I fully appreciate the fresh perspective behind and vision for a cowboy-themed reshaping of the classic, this narrative, relying heavily on the audience's imagination, tended to drag, while also reverting to heavy-handed slapstick moments that failed in comparison to the genuine humor from the hour prior.
Though I enjoyed his spasmodic Jacob Marley, some of Tom Paradise's other roles, including the Ghost of Christmas Present (played like a flower child), came across as a touch overacted and patronizing.
The intentionally dumpy props, including a modified broomstick as the Ghost of Christmas Past, also gave the show a bit of a campy, dinner-theater vibe that undermined some of the moments of tenderness when Mitchell/Scrooge was learning his lessons.
Since A Christmas Carol is widely known by heart and in need of no explanation to the audience, it's easy to draw parallels between Dickens' work and Mitchell's substituted Western landscape — and there are some clever and effective re-imagined settings. (Bob Cratchit lives in a trailer park, for instance.) And a Tiny Tim randomly plucked from the audience (ours remarkably didn't know the little guy's famous line) makes a total joke of the Christmas dinner scene, which works just fine here.
But overall, this cowboy Christmas fails to elicit the full emotion of the original, if that is remotely its goal. Even after two of Mitchell's suggested three hot whiskey drinks (served at the concession stand outside), I hadn't quite reached full Christmas spirit by the time Scrooge gave Cratchit his deserved raise.
Call me the grump, but I could have just gone for more poetry through most of Act Two.