March 23, 2016

The Down-Home Charms of "Southern Comfort" and "The Robber Bridegroom"

All of a sudden the rootsy melodies of bluegrass music are being strummed on all kinds of New York stages. There's Southern Comfort, which is playing down at the Public Theater through this weekend; The Robber Bridegroom, which opened last week at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels theater; and Bright Star, the new Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical that opens on Broadway tomorrow night. I've only seen the first two but they're as different as a mandolin is from a banjo: one comes with a soft lilt and the other with a raucous twang.

Country music makes thematic sense for Southern Comfort, which is set in rural Georgia and takes its name from the real-life annual gathering of transgender people that has been held in the south for the past 25 years. The musical, adapted from a same-named 2001 documentary (click here to watch it) follows a year in the life of a group that has banded together into a makeshift family that gives them an oasis from the disapproving world around them.

Book writer and lyricist Dan Collins, composer Julianne Wick Davis and director Thomas Caruso, who is credited with conceiving the idea for the stage version with Robert Dusold, have taken pains to make sure that a diverse assortment of transgender experiences are represented. 

At their story's center is Robert Eads, who was born Barbara and has recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer but hopes to live long enough to attend the year's Southern Comfort gathering with his lady love Lola, who is tentatively beginning to live her life as the woman she has always believed herself to be.

The others in their circle include Jackson (née Peggy) Robert's surrogate son who believes gender reassignment surgery is necessary to complete his transition to being a man; Carly, the beautiful and confident trans woman who is Jackson's current love interest; Sam, a trans man shunned by his family, and Sam's cisgender girlfriend Melanie. Five musicians also perform onstage and take bit parts to help with the storytelling.

The plot centers around several questions that transgender people have to confront: Will Sam's parents accept him as he is? Will Melanie ever introduce the man she loves to the people she works with? Will Jackson get the dangerous operation he believes will save him from Robert's fate? Will Robert find a doctor who will give him the care he needs?  Will Lola find the courage to come out completely? In short, will each of them find the love and acceptance we all want.

That's a lot to load onto a musical and Southern Comfort has some trouble balancing all of it. Members of the transgender community have criticized the show for downplaying the way doctors failed to treat the real-life Eads and the production for failing to cast transgender actors in all the roles. 

To its credit, the Public has acknowledged its shortcomings, responded by holding a series of meetings, both private and public, to discuss those issues and promised to do better next time.

In the meantime, there are two transgender actors in this production—Donnie Cianciotto as Sam and Aneesh Sheth as Carly— and they're good but the leads Robert and Lola are played by stage vets Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy. 

Both O'Toole and McCarthy are cisgendered but they're also terrific in their roles. O'Toole, who sinks so deeply into Robert that she is virtually unrecognizable as herself or as a woman, provides the backbone for this production as resolutely as Eads provided one for his family.

And McCarthy gives the show its heart as the insecure Lola. In fact, his performance of Lola's solo about longing to freely express her true self is the one song that stands out in the show's pleasant but generic score (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Some critics have complained that the show, 10 years in the making, is outdated in this era of Caitlyn Jenner, movies like "Tangerine" and TV shows like "Orange is the New Black" and "Transparent." I suspect, though, that there will be a good number of people attending the real Southern Comfort gathering, scheduled for Sept. 27 thru Oct. 1 in Ft. Lauderdale, who might still see themselves in this show's characters.

I'm the odd man out on The Robber Bridegroom too. This intentionally silly folktale about the romance between a charming rogue and a Mississippi plantation owner's daughter, has drawn considerably higher marks from most critics. But I found its fun to be a bit forced.

The show, which Alfred Uhry adapted from a novella by Eudora Welty, arrives with music by Robert Waldman, lyrics by Uhry and the reputation of having been performed by the young Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone in the 1975 Broadway production (oh, to have seen that one!) 

The Roundabout revival stars stage hunk Steven Pasquale and stage newcomer Ahna O'Reilly but its big draw is the fact that it's directed by Alex Timbers, who brought a flamboyantly imaginative style to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher and Here Lies Love.

Robber Bridegroom's story gives him plenty to work with, including a talking head in a box, a boy named Goat, an evil stepmother and a plot that has the romantic duo falling in love while disguised as other people. And Timbers keeps things moving: actors impersonate props; stuffed dummies fill in for actors, the fourth wall is broken, shtick is spread on thick and a five-man band weaves through it all playing the show's jaunty, foot-stomping score (click here to read more about the director's approach).

But everyone seems to be working so hard that I could almost see the beads of sweat. Pasquale is in fine voice as always and, of course, he looks great but he doesn't seem as comfortable with all the tomfoolery as he does when he's in his natural habitat as a more traditional inamorato. 

O'Reilly betrays none of the nervousness that newbies so often display and jumps headlong through each hoop she's been set. Meanwhile, Leslie Kritzer takes full advantage of the opportunity she's been given to chew the scenery as the stepmother, barely pausing to wipe her mouth before taking big bite after big bite.

I smiled a little. I tapped my foot some. But I couldn't help wishing that they'd been more at ease and that I'd been having more fun.

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