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A CurtainUp Berkshires 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

Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy. (Photo by Scott Barrow)
Jeff McCarthy is a tall hunk, shades of his Officer Lockstock in the hit musical Urinetown. If you're a Barrington Stage fan (and who isn't?), you've seen him in BSC's revivals of All My Sons, Mack and Mabel and Sweeney Todd. He's still a hunk in Southern Comfort, their latest and most unusual Musical Theatre Lab offering that's based on a 2001 award-winning documentary about Robert Read. 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 remarkable sensitivity and believability. Given that Robert is dying, it's also a tragedy but a bracingly 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 alsoa both transgendered.

And so, 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 documentary 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 (Natalie Joy Johnson), the woman , Jackson wants to "be more" for we have a married couple Sam, born Debbie (Todd Cerveris) 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 "Flower Shop Store" hits an emotionally powerful crescendo. Natalie Joy Johnson's "Sensual Feminine Movement" is another big winner from a standpoint of music, lyrics and delivery ("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").

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.

That said, the heartfelt twanging gets to be a bit repetitious and at close to two and a half hours (with intermission) even the unusual story and fine acting, singing and stagecraft get ultimately test the audience's appetite for all this treacly sincerity. Since the entire cast (with the exception of Elizabeth Ward Land as the percussionist and one of the story tellers) and creative team are reprising their work on a previous workshop production at New York's Cap21 Collaborative Arts Project 21, or CAP21. Tightening a bit of that heart-tugging would have benefitted what's now billed as a world premiere. Still, it's nice to see Barrington Stage's Musical Theatre Lab productions bring the same dedication to developing and showcasing new talent and building new audiences for intriguing if not Broadway blockbuster.

Southern Comfort
Book and lyrics by Dan Collins And Julianne Wick Davis
Directed By Thomas Caruso
Conceived by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso
Cast: Starring Annette O'Toole as Robert Eads and Jeff McCarthy as Lola Cola; also Todd Cerveris (Sam), Lizzie Hagsteadt (Storyteller/bass), Natalie Joy Johnson (Carly), Jeffrey Kuhn (Jackson), Elizabeth Ward Land (Storyteller/percussion), David Lutken (Storyteller/Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin, Dobro, Harmonica), Robin Skye (Melanie),Joel Waggoner (Storyteller/violin)
Music direction: Emily Otto
Choreography: Shea Sullivan
Scnic design: James Fenton
Costumes: Patricia Doherty
Lighting: Ed McCarthy
Stage manager: Joan Cappello
Running Time: 2 Hours and 10 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 7/25/13 press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Chosen Family/Robert, Jackson, Melanie, Sam
  • Grace/Robert
  • Women/Sam, Robert, Melanie
  • Bird/Lola, Lizzie
  • Southern Comfort/ Robert, The Storytellers
  • Summer/Elizabeth, The Storytellers
  • Places That Aren't Even There/Jackson, Carly, Joel, Lizzie
  • Chosen Family/ instrumental
  • A Little Bit More o' Me/Sam
  • Barbara/Robert, Joel
  • Letter/ Instrumental
  • My Love/Jackson, Lola, Sam, Carly, Robert, Melanie
  • I Don't Need Another Father/Jackson
Act Two
  • Fall/The Storytellers
  • Walk the Walk/Carly, Company
  • Flower Shop Interlude/Lola
  • I'm With You/Melanie, Sam
  • I'm Goin/Robert
  • My Love (reprise)/David, Elizabeth, Carly
  • My Love/ (instrumental)
  • Chosen Family (reprise)/Robert, Melanie, Sam, Lola, Carly
  • Winter/Joel, Elizabeth
  • Two Hundred Miles/Lola
  • Home/Spring (reprise)Jackson, Company
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