Moving musical proud of its agender

Frank ScheckNew York Post

As touching as it is idiosyncratic, “Southern Comfort” effectively redefines the term “family musical.” Based on a 2001 Sundance award-winning documentary about transgender people in rural Georgia, it features perhaps the strongest family to be seen on a New York stage.

Five of the six central characters in this musical by Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music) are transsexuals. The patriarch of the clan is the 50-something Robert (Annette O’Toole), who’s dying, ironically enough, of cervical cancer. His partner is Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a hulking figure who struggles to wear blouses that downplay her massive shoulders. Robert also has two young men in his life that he treats as sons: Maxwell (Jeffrey Kuhn) and Cas (Todd Cer-veris), whose respective girlfriends are Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson) and Stephanie (Robin Skye); only Stephanie was born female.

“Southern Comfort” takes its title from an annual gathering in Atlanta that’s described as “the cotillion of the transgender community.”


The show movingly depicts the characters’ constant struggle for respect and tolerance from both family members and the community. Robert is rebuffed by doctors who are uncomfortable treating him, and his elderly parents refuse to acknowledge his new identity. A major subplot involves Maxwell’s agonizing over the recon-structive surgery that would complete his process of becoming a male.

But there’s humor as well, as when Maxwell and Cori put a romantic spin on taking their hormone shots together. “One makes you horny and the other makes you irritable,” she cheerfully points out.

The gentle country/bluegrass-flavored score, performed by a four-piece band whose members also play minor roles, is filled with a few too many emotive ballads of self-empowerment.

But some of the songs, such as “Bird,” Lola’s lament about “the cruel sound of my own voice,” are very touching.

O’Toole — who’s performed a cabaret act with her husband, Michael Mc-Kean — is virtually unrecognizable here under a moustache, goatee and aviator glasses; she’s terrific as the weathered Robert. McCarthy, whose Officer Lockstock character from “Urinetown” has been a hilarious commentator at many theater benefits, is moving as the ungainly Lola, and his scenes with the diminutive O’Toole have an amusing Mutt and Jeff quality. The supporting players are equally fine.

If there was ever a show with its heart in the right place, it’s this one. The comforts it provides are far more than just the Southern variety.

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