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THEATER REVIEW Southern Comfort
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-03-13

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Authors: Dan Collins ( book/lyrics ) and Julianne Wick Davis ( music )

At: Pride Films & Plays, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 866-811-4111; PrideFilmsAndPlays.com; $25-$40. Runs through: March 31

This musical is deeply heartfelt but not entirely successful as a vehicle or as a groundbreaking production.

It's based on an award-winning 2001 documentary film about Robert Eads ( 1945-1999 ), although it alters characters and story. Robert is a fiftysomething trans man dying of ovarian cancer, never having completed full gender-reassignment surgery. It's bad timing as Robert's just found the love of his life, Lola, who's beginning a male-to-female transition starting with her own public presentation.

Additionally, Robert ( North Homeward ) presides over a rural Georgia community of other trans women and men, among them his young adult adoptive son, Jackson ( Lizzy Sulkowski ). Each year the "chosen family," as Robert calls them, attends the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference ( SoCo ) in Atlanta—a life-affirming and inclusive real event—and Robert's goal is to live long enough to go one last time and dance with Lola at the SoCo ball.

Rather a tear-jerker, the thin story is the problem with Southern Comfort as a vehicle. It references many issues—family rejection, work-place discrimination, self-acceptance, fear, sexuality ( apart from gender ), medical discrimination ( a dozen doctors/hospitals refused to treat Eads )—but addresses none deeply. Apart from Robert's obvious illness, nothing happens in Act I until the close, when Robert and Jackson fall out over Jackson's decision to complete reassignment surgery ( using his own money ) with a phalloplasty. Robert's opposition isn't explained and comes from nowhere, so it feels forced. Jackson has been critical of Lola—also forced and unmotivated—but that's not an apparent factor in his argument with Robert. The issues involving gender reassignment—surgical and otherwise—barely are discussed, leaving cis viewers uninformed ... but perhaps that needs to be another show.

The lovely, ample score is played on traditional acoustic instruments—fiddle, string bass, banjo, guitar and mandolin—but only occasionally channels traditional music. Indeed, jazz influences and Broadway ballads are as frequent as bluegrass tunes. Veteran musical director Robert Ollis makes the band sound great and the voices as good as possible.

And there's the rub with the production: the best voices are very good and fully up to the score's demands while the worst are barely adequate. And the acting, under JD Caudhill's direction, is not a reason to see the show. Viewed at the final preview, pacing and energy lagged as the show ran a long two-and-a-half hours.

Still, the six lead characters all are trans individuals who are played by trans actors ( unlike the 2016 off-Broadway production )—a groundbreaking casting commitment that was impossible in Chicago ( and elsewhere ) several years ago. The trans-actor talent pool will hopefully grow if opportunities such as Southern Comfort are provided. Others in the cast include Kyra Leigh ( Lola ), Ricki Pettinato ( Carly ), Benjamin Flores ( Sam ) and Sinclair Willman ( Melanie ).


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