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A CurtainUp Review
Southern Comfort

We always agreed that man or woman was about what's in your heart and your head, not between your legs. — Robert
Southern Comfort
L-R: Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg).
This very dark but deeply affecting musical culminates a long journey from its original brief New York production by CAP21 to the Public Theater. Like Fun Home, a musical about a group of transgendered people is the type of musical once unlikely to be seen in a venue as large and prominent as the Public Theater, but here it is, at least for most of this month. When I saw it at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA three years ago, it was at their small second stage so I wondered if it would still be as unforgettably moving or get lost in the more than three times larger Anspacher. Another open question was whether it had lost some of its uniqueness now that we've become more familiar with the transgender world. But no worries.

With Thomas Caruso again at the helm, most of the earilier production's main characters and most of the design team are still on board, and Southern Comfort has made a solid landing. It retains the intimacy of the production I saw at Barrington's intimate little theater. James J. Fenton's woodsy unit set is probably a tad bigger. At any rate, it's perfectly positioned to provide the 3-seating sections surrounding it with perfect sight lines. Patricia E. Doherty's more diverse costumes further enrich and deepen Jeff McCarthy's remarkable performance.

In short , except for a somewhat too long first act, this Southern Comfort is better than ever. The lack of acceptance from family members and self-image and adjustment problems depicted by these characters still tugs mightily at our heart strings. Their impact on her heart is intensified by the fact that Robert Eads was a real person as documented in Kate Davis's film.

Since my comments after my previous viewing still hold, what follows is an updated repeat of that review.

Essentially, Southern Comfort is a trple love story. It revolves around three pairs of lovers, all but one, transgendered. The couple who provide the show with its hart and soul are Annette O'Toole's Robert and Jeff McCarthy's Lola Cola.

McCarthy is a tall hunk, shades of his Officer Lockstock in the hit musical Urinetown. He's still a hunk in Southern Comfort, the latest and most unusual role of his diverse career. But this hunk is a rather shy lady named Lola Cola. Not a shiny brunette hair of her page boy is out of place and she's clearly smitten with Robert (Annette O'Toole).

Lola isn't exactly a beauty queen— except to her diminutive, boyfriend. While she's in her 40's, she has heretofore kept her feminine self under wraps. Thus, her gradual move into the backwoods transgender community of which the also middle-aged Robert is the nominal patriarch has the innocent joy of a coming of age romance which McCarthy portrays with incredible sensitivity and believability. Given that Robert is dying, this is also a tragedy but a nevertheless upbeat one, thanks to O'Toole's vividly endearing portrayal of this unusual girl-into-man's sunny personality.

Watching the brawny McCarthy and petite O'Toole makes for an amusing opposites attract touch, reminiscent of the old comic strip characters Mutt and Jeff. Of course, the beauty Robert and Lola see in each other has nothing to do with a gorgeous face or physique, but comes from within. And the same is true of the musical's two other couples, all but one of whom are also both transgendered.

Despite the provocative subject of transgender life, this isn't a show sizzling with sex. Instead the sizzle comes from the tenderness and warmth of the various one on one relationships; also from the overall closeness of this group of people who have formed a "chosen family" unit that meets one Sunday each month at Robert's cabin and at the celebratory annual Southern Comfort get-together in Atlanta from which both film and musical took their names.

The film focused on Eads, his girlfriend and one other couple. Though faithful to the film and its sensibility, Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis have expanded the cast to create a full-bodied show about a marginalized group of people who struggle not only with their fears of public exposure and condemnation, but with accepting themselves. This includes whether to go all the way with their chosen sexual identity or accept Robert's argument against surrogate son Jackson's (Jeffrey Kuhn)having painful and risky surgery. Despite Robert's plea that being a man is about "what's in your heart and your head, not between your legs" Jackson leaves the ailing Robert to have the surgery.

In addition to Carly (Aneeth Sheth), the woman , Jackson wants to "be more" for we have a married couple Sam, born Debbie (Donnie Cianeiotto) and Melanie (Robin Skye). Melanie who was actually always a female has nevertheless changed in other ways through being with the gentle Sam. For one thing, she's no longer the bigoted redneck she once was.

The bluegrass score is beautifully sung and includes numerous ear pleasing and heart-touching ballads. McCarthy's rich rendering of "Bird" hits an emotionally powerful crescendo. The lively and cleverly staged "Walk the Walk" is a second act highlight, its focus alternating between Jackson being prepped for his surgery as a confident, sassy Aneeth Sheth leads the group in a movement routine (Cuz a girl ain't what she's wearin'a/And a boy ain't how he's born./You're the moves you make n' they gotta take you/Past the things you've worn/Cuz what a body is or not/Is just a whole lot a' talk/You gotta walk the walk"). Ed McCarthy's lighting contributes mightily to the effectiveness of these back and forth segues.

The orchestra consists of a combo that's always visible and all but one of whom, frequently put down their instruments to step in as ancillary characters. Like everything else about Thomas Caruso's staging this works very well. My complaint about that over long first act is a minor quibble, as is that all that heartfelt twanging can occasionally feel repetitious. It's wonderful to see this unusual show given a chance to be seen by the ever increasing audience that relies on the Public Theater to host talent and creativity even if it arrives without celebrity credentials.

Post script: Southern Comfort's arrival marks an interesting, unintended first: While the theater isn't generally awash with bluegrass musicals, Southern Comfort has its official opening on the same night as another blue grass tuner, The Robber Bridegroom . This one's an exuberant 40-year-old fairy tale.

Southern Comfort
Conceived for the stage by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso based on the film by Kate Davis.
Book and lyrics by Dan Collins , music by Julianne Wick Davis Directed by Thomas Caruso
Choreography by Ryan Kasprzak
Cast (in order of Appearance: David M. Lutken (Storyteller, Guitar), Lizzie Hagstedt (Storyteller, Bass), Joel Waggoner (Storyteller, Violin), Elizabeth Ward Land (Storyteller, Percussion), Jeffrey Kuhn (Jackson), Aneesh Sheth (Carly), Robin Skye (Melanie),Donnie Cianciotto (Sam), Annette O'Toole (Robert Eads), Jeff McCarthy (Lola Cola).
Scenic design by James J. Fenton
Costume design by Patricia E. Doherty
Lighting design by Ed McCarthy
Sound design by Andrew Keister
Hair and Wig Design by David Brian Brown
Orchestrations: Julianne Wick Davis with David M. Lutken and Joel Waggoner
Music Director: David M. Lutken
Dramaturg: Polly Carl
Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 1 intermission
Public's Anspacher Theater, 420 Lafayette Streetn
From 2/23/16; opening 3/13/16; closing 3/27/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/11/16 press Performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Spring/Company
  • Chosen Family/Robert, Jackson, Melanie, Sam, The Storytellers
  • Grace/Robert
  • Women/Jackson,Sam, Robert, Melanie
  • Bird/Lola, The Storytellers
  • Southern Comfort/ Robert, The Storytellers
  • Summer/ The Storytellers
  • Places That Aren't Even There/Jackson, Carly,The Storytellers
  • Bless My Heart/ Sam, Jackson, The Storytellers
  • Barbara/Robert, The Storytellers
  • My Love/ Robert, The Storytellers
  • I Don't Need Another Father/Jackson
Act Two
  • Fall/The The Storytellers
  • Walk the Walk/Carly, Company
  • I'm With You/Melanie, Sam
  • I'm Goin/Robert
  • My Love (reprise)/Company
  • My Love/ (instrumental)
  • Chosen Family (reprise)/Robert, Company
  • Winter/The The Storytellers
  • Giving up the Ghost/Lola
  • Home/ Jackson
  • Spring (reprise)/ Company
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