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Review: Transgender-Themed SOUTHERN COMFORT, Another Groundbreaking Musical at The Public

Kate Davis' 2001 documentary about Robert Eads, a female to male transgender Georgian diagnosed with ovarian cancer who was refused treatment by so many doctors that by the time he found one who was willing to help, it was too late, may not strike many as fodder for a musical.

Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

But within the story of his last year alive is the brief tale of his last romance, and the continuing story of the handful of friends, almost all transgender, that served as his chosen family when his biological one rejected him.

Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis' (music) new musical, Southern Comfort, shares its name with the Sundance Award-winning documentary and is itself a Jonathan Larson Award winner. Its subject matter alone makes the musical's Off-Broadway premiere a groundbreaking event, quite appropriately housed at The Public, which, with musicals like FUN HOME, HAMILTON and HERE LIES LOVE, has been breaking ground quite frequently.

So if Southern Comfort isn't a completely satisfying musical, it is an ambitious one that should be welcomed. Its story is touching, its aim is sincere and director Thomas Caruso delivers a lovely production presented by a fine company.

At the center of it all is an outstanding performance as Robert by an unrecognizable Annette O'Toole. While many may legitimately question the choice to cast cisgender actors in transgender roles (the company includes two transgender members) O'Toole's appearance as a wiry good old boy in his 50s, his body shrinking out of his now-baggy clothes, is remarkably realistic, even in the Public's intimate Anspacher Theater.

Brimming with sage simplicity and tough-guy sentimentality, her Robert exudes sunny spunk and sings with a strong belt.

Theatregoers will more readily recognize the tall and broad-shouldered Jeff McCarthy as Robert's new girlfriend, male to female transgender Lola, who retains a male identity at his job. Appropriately, there's no attempt to soften his looks or his voice, as he sings with his usual rich and deep baritone.

Designer James J. Fenton's homespun unit set depicts the backyard of Robert's rural home and features a towering tree with branches that display a large collection of shadow boxes representing memories of happy times. Beneath it plays music director and guitarist David M. Lutken's ensemble (Lizzie Hagstedt on bass, Elizabeth Ward Land on percussion, Morgan Morse on piano and Joel Waggoner on violin), who act as storytellers and play small roles.

The musical begins with one of the regular gatherings of Robert's chosen family. Lola's introduction into the group serves as a reason for the audience to learn their backstories, all of which include being rejected by their biological families.

Robin Skye and Donnie Cianciotto (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) grew up as Peggy Sue and, despite Robert's fatherly support, carries a great deal of bitterness for the world around him. Sweet and gentle Sam (Donnie Cianciotto), who is female to male transgender, has his adoring cisgender wife Melanie (Robin Skye) to help him through tough times, although she resists having him along at her company's annual Christmas party, fearing the reactions of her co-workers.

Eventually we meet Jackson's new girlfriend, male to female transgender Carly (Aneesh Sheth), a free-spirited sexual firecracker.

Once relationships are established, the musical's two acts move slowly to the gang's visit to the annual transgender convention in Atlanta named Southern Comfort, SoCo for short, which is indeed the one time of the year when they can all feel accepted and comfortable among strangers.

For the most part, Southern Comfort seems more concerned with educating audiences on transgender issues than with storytelling. Matters such as whether or not to have surgery, whether or not to change your gender appearance for certain situations and the emotional impact when surgery is botched are played out didactically. The chamber-style country score, while possessing lively moments, leans toward melancholy too often. More diverse emotional textures are needed.

SOUTHERN COMFORT is certainly a noble effort, and the desire to educate audiences is an understandable urge. Despite its flaws, the emotions expressed are heart-tugging, well played and sincere.

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From This Author - Michael Dale