29 July 2013 06:26PM
(L to R) Annette O’Toole and Jeff McCarthy
You would think Southern Redneck Transgender Musical—a genre of one—would be near impossible to pull off. That Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis (book writer/lyricist and composer) succeed at all is miraculous.
“Southern Comfort,” based on an acclaimed 2001 documentary of the same name, takes its title from an annual gathering of transgender folk in Atlanta. Oddly, the credits don’t mention the filmmaker, Kate Davis, but give “Conceived by” credit to Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso (director of this production) who own the stage rights.
For all its thematic shock value, “Southern Comfort” is structurally and stylistically conventional, apart from the very nice touch of using four of the terrific five-piece band as actors (in minor roles) and singers, notably the gorgeous, mournful, joyous voice of Lizzie Hagstedt, worth the price of admission.
The principals are a motley but loving and, ultimately lovable band of five brothers and sisters in various states of transition, and one born-that-way woman. But the leads, Robert, a man who was born a woman, is played by Annette O’Toole, and Lola/John, a man who is in the early stages of becoming a woman, is played by Jeff McCarthy, while the other transgendered woman and two men, are played by … a woman and two men. McCarthy makes dramatic sense, as we see him/her functioning as a man in one scene, but Robert is always Robert, and, although O’Toole is superb in the role, and unrecognizable as herself, or as any woman for that matter, the inconsistency is disorienting.
The issue of gender reassignment surgery is raised, (this group is almost unanimously against it,), but not really dealt with. (One character asks the good question, “If gender is about the way we feel inside, not the way we look outside, why do we take hormones?”)
On the other hand, many of the songs in the pop-country score, especially the early ones, are on-the-nose, which makes the piece sometimes feel didactic and/or hoky. . It gets better, as we warm to this untraditional-but-mostly-functional family. The songs get better too, and at least two–the title song and “Barbara”–are terrific.
In the end—actually, well before the end–“Southern Comfort,” made me feel the unease that comes with being born in a foreign body, the relief that comes with becoming and accepting oneself, and the love these six feel for each other. More I cannot ask from a musical in any genre.