Southern Comfort, music by Julianne Wick Davis, book and lyrics by Dan Collins. Directed by Thomas Caruso.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Elizabeth Ward Land, David Lutken, Joel Waggoner, Lizzie Hagstedt; photo: Scott Barrow
"Well, I seen some beauty in my time. . ."
The thing about a great musical is the way it makes your heart want to sing along, even when you don’t know the words or the tune yet. You just want to be a part of something special. You want to share the stage with the characters you are starting to love, to want to know. You can’t get close enough because of that invisible wall the theater sets in your path, the one you can’t ever cross because you know you’ll spoil the picture if you enter it. You just have to learn the beauty and make it live again in your home, your heart, your life.
That is the feeling you get when you see "Southern Comfort", an uncomfortable story about unfamiliar people whose genuine emotions are unstoppable and whose lyric expressions touch you even if you don’t like what you’re seeing. I am certain that some people sitting around me on opening night were not moved, not touched by the proceedings. That is inevitable when truly difficult ground is covered in telling a story that cannot have universal appeal. For this Barrington Stage Company production of a new musical the best thing you can do is suck it up, rid yourself of prejudice and let the tale of three pairs of honest lovers take you inside and show you what honesty is all about.
Five of the six are transgendered. What that means, if you need to be told, is that they are men and women born in bodies that belie their true natures. The men were born female and the ladies were born male. They have known from their earliest days that there is something outrageous in this, that they have been denied their true identities, that they need to change that appearance as far as they are able in order to find happiness, to experience love.
The show is based on a film documentary which came out in 2001 that followed the final year in the life of Robert Eads, born Barbara Eads. Internally he is still female; he has staunchly supported the theory that it isn’t what’s between your legs that defines your gender, it is what you know about yourself that makes this difference. Dying of ovarian cancer, he must come to grips with his relationship with that close circle of friends who are his chosen family and with his love, a cross-dressing mechanic, still coming to grips with her own identity crisis, who uses the name Lola Cola.
This is not a gay musical. This is a straight musical in which the characters are who they say they are. The leads are played by actors who are the opposite gender, but their friends are not. At first this seems a bit confusing but after a while it seems just right. Each is at a different stage of their transition. Voices sometimes belie image and body language is occasionally confusing, but that is what happens in life: often we see people who don’t seem to be what we anticipate. Beautiful, red-headed, 92 pound, five foot tall Edna St. Vincent Millay had a deep, masculine voice which surprised her fans and still does confuse the image. This was as natural and as real as any voice and image you find in this superb show that has no peers.
Lola is played by Jeff McCarthy, most recently seen here as Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. He is a tall, white-haired bass-baritone whose dark-wigged Lola is as feminine as she can be. She is coming of age, so to speak, and she isn’t quite ripe yet. Meeting Robert’s friends for the first time she is nervous and stand-offish, anticipating the rejection that comes to transgendered folks all the time. The beauty in Lola is not her face or figure, but in her heart and her soul. McCarthy knows how to play such things and he is as moving as anyone could be in such a role. In the second act when Lola receives a love token, a corsage, the male in her finds it impossible to gracefully accept such a gift, but once her considerable confusion is dealt with, the flower is a perfect symbol of who she has become through the love of a very good man.
That man is Robert, played by Annette O’Toole. A film and television fixture since the mid 1970s, O’Toole brings a graceful appearance to the role of Robert, a maleness that feels just right with that tiny extra bit of humility and kindness. Robert’s voice is mid-pitched, neither male nor female but Robert’s voice. Speaking or singing O’Toole has it just right and when illness overtakes the man, O’Toole knows how to use the female in the character to bring extra strength to the physical testing that is taking place within him. For both characters here there are no false clues to their identities. There is only honesty and inner strength to sustain them.
Surrounding them are four other actors who take on roles that challenge both the performers and the audience. Unlike O’Toole and McCarthy, however, they are men playing women being men and women playing women who love these men. Todd Cerveris plays such a man. He sings in a gentle low tenor voice that could be a woman’s alto but beyond that there is no hint of the feminine in his portrayal of Sam, born Debbie. His second act duet, "I’m With You" sung with Robin Skye - a born woman playing a born woman - is a classic moment of musical theatre. Skye is dynamite as the much-married woman who has finally found the perfect man and she brings a different element into the show which is much appreciated as her bigoted southern history is stripped away through her appreciation of the man of her dreams.
Carly, played by Natalie Joy Johnson, is the most perfectly evolved transgender and her devotion to Jeffrey Kuhn’s Jackson, born Peggy Sue, is delectable to observe. Kuhn turns in a performance that stops the show as he attempts to take the final steps in gender reassignment. His voice, also tenor, gives his strong manly appearance just the right edge and his overwhelming devotion to Robert is both charming and alarming at the same time.
Surrounding this cast is an ensemble of players who are the most amazing folks on our regional stages today. Storytellers, character actors, singers and musicians, they are always in view, play the entire score - 25 musical numbers - without music, sing more than seven numbers and play the parents of the principals, among other roles, with total honesty and believability. You are aware of them, always, and ignore them most of the time. They are the texture of the show, and the tapestry of humanity. They are Lizzie Hagstedt, Elizabeth Ward Land, David Lutken and Joel Waggoner. Their musical director, always visible as well, is Emily Otto who deserves special attention and at least a bow - which she never got on opening night.
The set is ambient and brilliant and designed by James J. Fenton. The costumes are the result of Patricia E. Doherty’s insight into the characters. Ed McCarthy’s lighting defines each place and moment in the play to perfection. David Brian Brown provides the right wigs for Lola and the others as needed.
Musical staging by Shea Sullivan combines seamlessly with the tightly aligned direction of Thomas Caruso who can make more of gestures and focused positions than you might expect. He has clearly guided this work into its present state and his work is absolutely fine-tuned. His actors clearly have gleaned a lot from his vision and insight.
I don’t go crazy over new musicals that use country, southern, western or rock songs as their absolute. I don’t necessarily seek out the oddities of life to praise. This show brings all of the above but mostly it just brings the expressiveness of a great show about fascinating people who illuminate the perfections of love and trust and humane behavior. Southern Comfort is the best new show I’ve seen, bar none!
Jeff McCarthy as Lola and Annette O'Toole as Robert; photo: Scott Barrow
Robin Skye and Todd Cerveris; photo: Scott Barrow
Jeffrey Kuhn and Natalie Joy Johnson; photo: Scott Barrow
Southern Comfort plays on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle & Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center of Barrington Stage Company, at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts through August 10. Rush to buy tickets at the box office, 413-236-8888; don’t even bother looking it up on their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.