If you’ve seen Kate Davis’s moving 2001 documentary about a tight-knit group of transgender friends living in the-Middle-of-Nowhere, Georgia, you probably wonder why anyone would want to musicalize it. After all, patriarch Robert (Annette O’Toole)—an F to M who seems like such a good ol’ boy, the KKK once asked him to join—and his pals are more likely to blast guns than burst into song. But Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis’s lush, pop-infused country score brings new layers of emotion to this profound tale of love.
Robert and his makeshift family—girlfriend Lola (Jeff McCarthy), surrogate son Maxwell (Jeffrey Kuhn) and his sometime lover Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson), as well as married couple Cas (Todd Cerveris) and “genetic girl” Stephanie (Robin Skye)—gather once a month for Sunday dinner. Although Robert is dying of ovarian cancer, he refuses to be glum. His last wish is to attend Southern Comfort, a transgender convention, with the just-starting-to-transition Lola on his arm.
In order to give the show a clear dramatic arc, the writers take a lot of liberties with real-life details, and the second act gets bogged down in a series of clichs. But such flaws don’t ruin the overall story’s power. There’s much to admire here: the fabulous, five-person band, James J. Fenton’s evocative set and Thomas Caruso’s sensitive direction of his committed cast. Southern Comfort is different, beautiful and lovable, just like its heroes.