Young kids are old hands

Cowboy musical tonight at Strawberry Park Elementary

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— Jackson Perry may not have a big part, but he knows his lines by heart.

"Are you all right, partner?" Jackson said in a cowboy drawl Monday during a rehearsal for tonight's performance of "Cow--boys, Outlaws, Railroads & Mining, Oh My!"

In the comical, historical musical written by music teacher Michelle Hess, about 150 Strawberry Park third- and fourth-graders such as Jackson will tell the tale of Colorado in the Wild West, when prospectors rushed for gold and outlaws ruled the saloons.

The students built the sets, made the costumes and -- reportedly -- memorized lines for the play, which raises the curtain at 6:30 p.m. in the school's cafeteria.

Although Jackson said he only has a few lines in his role of "Customer No. 1," he learned quite a bit of local history and knowledge, including what a "dogie" is.

"A dogie is a baby cow that has been separated from its mother," he said Monday, wearing a brown cowboy hat for the rehearsal.

Stray calves will be featured in "Git Along Li'l Dogie," one of several songs -- including "Home on the Range," a pair of "outlaw ballads" sung by third-graders and even a historical rap called "Gold Rush," Hess said -- that are part of the performance. "There's a total of 25 instruments being played in this, too," she said.

To get a part in the production, kids went through a full audition in January, complete with callbacks and understudies. "They do a lot of incredible plays at the middle school, and I love that I can help prepare them for what that will be like," Hess said.

Although fourth-grader Meg O'Connell is excited for the play, she is not entirely happy with her part. "I have to be a boy, and I have to be old, ugly and old," said Meg, 10.

She plays James Norvell, a real frontier cowboy and fiery preacher who died in 1936. "He didn't think girls should sing or dance," Meg said, laughing.

Fourth-graders Emma Wilson, Kayla Guettich and Hope Nelson are narrators for the play, which tells Colorado history from about 1850 to 1910.

When a reporter and a photographer stopped by Monday's rehearsal, Meg, Jackson and the three narrators clustered around, talking excitedly and leaning in to pictures.

"Can you tell they're stage hounds?" Hess asked.

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