a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Julianne Wick Davis, composer; Kate Davis, filmmaker; Polly Carl, dramaturg
What: Musical Drama
Where: Public Theater
When: February 23-March 27, 2016
Why Watch: Kate Davis’s 2001 Sundance Award-winning documentary about a group of transgender friends living in rural Georgia in 1988 has been adapted into a musical for the stage with score by Julianne Wick Davis.
Southern Comfort had a workshop production Off-Off Broadway at CAP21 in 2011, and in the years leading up to its Off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater – and the many more years since Robert Eads tragically died of ovarian cancer after numerous doctors refused to treat him because of his gender – much has changed. Not in regards to the country-fried musical, necessarily, but in terms of the visibility of the trans community. When Robert was falling in love with Lola Cola, Laverne Cox wasn’t yet starring in Orange is the New Black and Caitlin Jenner, literally, didn’t exist.
So why, in 2016, are we watching a musical about the trans experience performed largely by cisgender actors? The Public invited transgender actors to audition, but only cast two (the wonderful Donnie Cianciotto and Aneesh Sheth). The leads – Robert and Lola – who comprise the emotional crux of the show, were seemingly reserved for Annette O’Toole and Jeff McCarthy (both, also, wonderful), who originated them at CAP21. When this disappointing lack of representation caused an stir in the trans community, The Public’s response seemed to be to hire Boston-based trans dramaturg Polly Carl; no one else in the creative team, lead by director Thomas Caruso, or in the band is transgender.
So how does the casting and leadership effect the show? Well, it partially explains why Dan Collins’s book and lyrics feel strangely dated, even as we know we still have a long way to go in terms of acceptance, inclusion, and representation. Multiple, meaty storylines – Will Jackson’s father accept him? Will Lola embrace who she truly is at SoCo, the annual transgender convention in Atlanta? etc. – feel overly familiar and are sidelined or fizzle out because there simply isn’t time to fully address them all. And with 22 rather indistinguishable songs, the issues are often benched in favor of yet another twangy number.
Southern Comfort (the musical) never purports to be a warts-and-all documentary; from the start, it’s forthright in its heartwarming earnestness. This is a story of community – a unique one, to be sure, in Georgia’s countryside – of the family that one opts, rather than is born, into. To complement this, James J. Fenton’s homey and woodsy set and Julianne Wick Davis’s folk-bluegrass score create an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy; it really does feel like a backyard in rural GA. This warmth is amplified by the excellent band which, onstage the entire show, is smartly made up of Storyteller Musicians that sometimes sing/play on their own, at other times joins in with the cast, and at others, step out from behind their instruments to play small, one-off roles like a doctor or parent. There is a key scene (“Walk the Walk”) in Act II that is particularly well crafted and staged by director Thomas Caruso: while one trans woman sings a seminar on how to “walk” like/be a woman, a trans man talks to a doctor about how to become a man through surgery. It’s a moving and effective representation of the differing views on what it means to “be” a certain gender.
Southern Comfort is obviously a work of love from all involved – from the conceivers (Caruso and Robert DuSold) to the writers to the cast and musicians – and that warmth permeates the production. It’s just a shame that the material – and, perhaps even more importantly, the casting – isn’t a stronger showcase for trans performers.
Bechdel Test: FAIL