Writers of musicals have been taking more chances in recent years and the Barrington Stage Company’s Music Theatre Lab has been a leader in nurturing these projects along. Who would have thought that a musical about an elementary school’s spelling bee would become a world-wide monster phenomenon? It nurtured “The Burnt Part Boys” to a Playwrights Horizons engagement in New York. “The Memory Show” with its original BSC cast sang out in its recently-completed off-Broadway run.
With “Southern Comfort,” the new musical now playing through August 10 at the theater company’s St. Germain Stage, the Music Theatre Lab and William Finn, Artistic Producer, are offering one of their most daring productions yet. The musical by Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis tells the story of a male transgendered individual named Robert Eads who created a “chosen family” composed of other transgendered men and women in rural Georgia. The production is based on a 2001 documentary film of the same name that introduced the world to Robert and his unique family and to the annual conference in Atlanta for transgendered individuals which is also called Southern Comfort.
While it may seem to be an unusual subject for a musical, the story itself quite easily and fittingly lends itself to musicalization. Collins (book and lyrics) and Davis (music) provide a score inspired by country music as well as by the traditions of bluegrass and roots music, with the rural location adding to its authentic feel. While most of the score is pleasant, it’s not overly memorable other than for the song “Chosen Family” which is also used as an occasional background motif, it does help underline the emotions and yearnings of the characters who have indeed faced considerable challenges in the isolated community of Toccoa, Georgia.
Robert’s extended chosen family consists of two additional female to male transgendered individuals, the excitable Jackson, born Peggy Sue, and the amiable Sam, who has found love with a woman named Melanie. At the same time, Robert has entered into a relationship with John, who is transitioning to a female named Lola Cola. Lola is initially tentative with her changes, somewhat uncomfortable in her new clothes, while retaining her identity as a repairman. An important plot line of the musical follows Lola’s growth and self-confidence as her relationship with Robert becomes closer and faces some unexpected challenges.
As we learn in the opening scene of the musical, and as depicted in the documentary, Robert had developed cervical cancer and is slowly dying, although nothing will keep him from furthering his relationship with Lola or from attending the next Southern Comfort conference. As Robert’s chosen family reacts and adjusts to his changing condition, we are provided glimpses into the characters’ relationships with their biological families, which not unexpected for rural Georgia, can be complicated, difficult and outright rejecting. As Jackson finds himself involved with the male to female transgendered Carly, he also approaches the issue of whether or not to pursue the plastic surgery that could help him feel more a man, a rather controversial topic for Robert, who over the years has become Jackson’s surrogate father.
Intermission and post-show chatter revealed that a few audience members were discomfited by the subject matter, more because they were unfamiliar with the transgendered experience. These folk tended to be engaged by the story, however, and did feel empathy towards the characters, similar to what was witnessed in another musical that daringly approached an unfamiliar subject, “Side Show,” the story of the Hilton Sisters, a famous set of conjoined twins from the mid 20th century, which just happened to have also starred Jeff McCarthy as one of the twins’ boyfriends.
Here the tall McCarthy is Lola, who adeptly explores his character’s discomfort with the public’s reaction to his transition while sincerely interested in pursuing Robert. In the early scenes, he can easily revert to his masculine alter ego, but McCarthy conveys Lola’s growing confidence in fully inhabiting her new persona.
The remarkable Annette O’Toole is absolutely unrecognizable as Robert, outfitted in Johnny Cash style outfits with a mustache and a wisp of goatee and soul patch. Although Robert’s voice does register in the higher pitches, O’Toole is quite convincing as she adopts the masculine behaviors with which her character is most comfortable. At the same time, she conveys the incredible warmth of this honorable man, who has become friend, mentor and source of support for other members of the transgendered community in the area. What’s interesting is that it’s not a maternal warmth, but something that allows him to bond with Jackson and Sam in, how can I put it, a more bromantic manner. They’re guys and we believe it.
This is aided by the decision to cast the roles of Jackson and Sam with two men, the moving, dynamic sparkplug Jeffrey Kuhn and the delightful Todd Cerveris, respectively, and Carly with a woman, the vivacious Natalie Joy Johnson. I don’t know exactly why the writers made that decision, as it contrasts rather vividly with the casting of a male as Lola and a woman as Robert. This casting serves to cement their ultimate gender identities, as any sign of their previous identities is absent. While a number of transgendered folk never quite reach such “textbook” manifestations of their respective gender identities, this casting serves to remind us of two things: one, how the characters view themselves and, two, in a perfect world, how we need to view them as well. The move reinforces their ultimate gender identities and provides the audience with some insight into how they wish to live their lives. Robin Skye plays Melanie with a mix of down home cynicism and genuine affection for her partner Sam.
Music is provided by an excellent four member onstage band, David Lutken, Lizzie Hagstead, Joel Waggoner and Elizabeth Ward Land, who are billed as Storytellers since some of their songs help to move the story along. They are also fine actors as well, since from time to time they are also called upon to assume various speaking roles, including perplexed, unforgiving biological parents who insist on calling their offspring by his or her birth name. The band is situated on a small front porch rendered nicely as part of James J. Fenton’s set design, with musical director Emily Otto conducting surreptitiously from within the front parlor.
Fenton’s evocative design also includes a broad back deck upon which a very inviting porch swing serves as the site for several assignations, as well as a significantly-sized playing area thrust out toward the audience. There’s also a large scraggly tree located in Robert’s back yard, which plays an important role in the action. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty has created a cross-section of country styles and country formal wear, along with some outfits for the Southern Comfort conference, including two quite attractive pieces for Lola and Carly. Ed McCarthy’s lighting communicates location changes and conveys the seasonal changes over the 10 month period the musical covers.
The musical was conceived by Robert DuSold and director Thomas Caruso who were intrigued by the original Kate Davis documentary and believed that it could be brought to the stage. Caruso directs with a light touch, allowing the actors’ performances to remain at all times at the heart of the play. “Southern Comfort” is quite an accomplishment for McCarthy and especially for O’Toole, who anchors the evening with a heartfelt performance as the wiry, confident and loving Robert Eads.
For tickets, contact the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit the theater’s website at www.barringtonstageco.org.
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