Southern Comfort at Barrington Stage
Poignant New Transgendered Musical
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 25, 2013
Book and Lyrics by Dan Collins; Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Conceived by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Music Direction by Emily Otto
Associate Producer, Shakina Nayfack; Scenic Design, James J. Fenton; Costume Design, Patricia E. Doherty; Lighting Design, Ed McCarthy; Sound Design, Patrick Calhoun; Wid Designer, David Brian-Brown; Orchestrations by Julianne Wick Davis, David Lutken, Joel Waggoner; Musical Staging, Shea Sullivan
Cast David Lutken (Storyteller, guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and harmonica), Lizzie Hagstedt (Storyteller, bass), Joel Waggoner (Storyteller/ violin), Elizabeth Ward Land (Storyteller, percussion), Jeffrey Kuhn (Jackson), Natalie Joy Johnson (Carly), Todd Ceveris (Sam), Robin Skye (Melanie), Annette O’Toole (Robert), Jeff McCarthy (Lola).
Barrington Stage Company
Musical Theatre Lab (Artistic Director William Finn)
July 19 to August 10, 2013
On Broadway there has been no scarcity of big, splashy, gorgeous, campy, drag themed musicals. This year’s Tony winner and hit Kinky Boots is just the latest example of a show with a work it girl theme.
But Southern Comfort, book and lyrics by Dan Collins with music by Julianne Wick Davis, which had its world premiere last night on the intimate Mark St. Germain stage of Barrington Stage Company, is not that. Hardly.
Kudos to director, Thomas Caruso, and co-initiator Robert DuSold for skillfully bringing this dauntingly complex project to magnificent and galvanic fruition.
We are familiar with the term musical comedy. But there is more of an impulse to cry than laugh during a tense, absorbing, poignant and thought provoking evening of socially relevant and informative theatre.
It may have been an historic experience, during the world premiere last night, as critics and audience alike struggled to get a handle on an emerging paradigm of musical drama.
Just entering the theater and viewing the inventive scenic design of James J. Fenton we were in for something different. Seats had been removed and reconfigured. The small stage was widened out even spilling into the aisle. There was a café style table set up in front of the small stage in the intimate theatre. The set evoked a rural, ramshackle farm house in Georgia.
There on Sundays and holidays a small circle of friends, a family of transgendered male to female and female to male individuals in varying stages of gender reassignment, meet and celebrate. When not in this safe and supportive environment they suffer countless insults and threats of bodily harm when attempting to “pass” in a straight and hostile world.
Particularly, in too often Neanderthal Bubba Land.
But the unkindest cut for this group suffering the external and internal scars of nips and tucks come from rejection by their own families. They are not welcomed home for the holidays by parents such as Robert’s (Annette O’Toole) who insist on calling him by his birth name of Barbara.
The norm of popular female impersonator shows is to emphasize how much a man looks just like Judy Garland, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler or some other star.
Here however we are astonished by how much the courageous actor Jeff McCarthy (Lola) in wig and dress does Not look like a woman. Or what an odd but thoroughly credible couple she makes with the tiny, feisty, totally remarkable Robert.
As Robert states gender is defined not by what’s between your legs but by your heart and mind. In that sense his Lola is stunningly and lovingly beautiful.
It took time for this musical to catch up with me. There was a complex group of characters to sort out and see as unique individuals. The country inflected music was unfamiliar. There wasn’t a recognition factor for songs reflecting plot points.
The first act was a struggle to get a fix on what was being presented. By the second act, however, we were totally caught up in the drama/ musical with a harrowing finale that left us stunned with a lump in our throat and a gaping hole in our heart.
Be warned, this show is not for every taste and is recommended to mature audiences willing to accept strong themes and new ideas. If you sign on to that social and artistic contract the benefits are legion. This is theatre where we learn something about the characters and ourselves. We are not just entertained. This is a fell good/ bad experience.
The musical was inspired by a documentary film about an annual meeting and cotillion of transgendered people in Georgia in this case referred to as Southern Comfort. It was at one such meeting that several of the characters first met.
Southern Comfort is an award winning, 2001 documentary film by Kate Davis about the final year in the life of Robert Eads. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he was turned down for treatment by two dozen doctors out of fear that treating such a patient would hurt their reputations. By the time Eads received treatment, the cancer was too advanced to save his life.
Of the remarkable ensemble Robert is the most compelling and charismatic. He is proud as punch and totally smitten with Lola who he tries to convince to join him at the “prom.” But Lola, who is not yet committed to hormones, feels that she is not ready.
Time is running out for Robert who tries to inform his parents of the terminal ilness during a cruel encounter.
Later Lola relates how, when Robert collapsed, she went from hospital to hospital during a dreadful night of repeatedly being rejected for treatment. On the way home Astrid, who worked for a hospital, and I discussed this. One can’t imagine a hospital rejecting a terminally ill patient based on gender. But we accept that it is based on fact in rural Georgia circa 2001. Let’s hope that’s no longer true.
While the female to male characters, Robert, Sam (Todd Ceveris), and Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) have undergone cosmetic mastectomies and take hormones, they have made a pact to reject the final procedure of an expensive and not yet perfected phalloplasty.
Because of a casual comment by his girlfriend Carly (male to female) Jackson breaks from the group and wants to be “complete.” There is an argument with Robert his surrogate Dad. In response Jackson sings the chilling “I Don’t Need Another Dad.” He is reconciled with the group only when they gather to spread Robert’s ashes.
While O’Toole and McCarthy are the stars of this show the supporting cast is just amazing. This includes the musicians who step off the porch/ bandstand to assume minor roles.
Not that there isn’t fun in this show. During the convention Carly offers a session on how to act more like a girl. She demonstrates and the amazing Lola joins her in the hilarious and show stopping high jinks of “Walk the Walk.” Hey, girls just want to have fun.
There are some 25 songs to become familiar with. “Women” was replete with compelling irony. Robert and Joel recall his horrific childhood through “Barbara.” Melanie (Robin Skye) a “real” and too often married woman conveys her true love to Sam with “I’m With You.” The terminally ill Robert proclaims that regarding the Southern Comfort convention “I’m Going.”
Brimming with tough love it is unlikely that you will see a new musical like this anytime soon. Only at Barrington Stage, for now, but likely it will have other productions of a musical that may be too good to be true.