By Barry Reszel
Southern Comfort is no mere musical.
Yes, it has a poignant songbook that advances a plot of interest and emotion. And for patrons fortunate enough to have already achieved full understanding—who have left all semblance of judgment behind, fully enveloping themselves in the warm embrace of love and compassion 24/365 —simply enjoy the show.
Everyone else can use Pride Films & Plays Chicagoland premiere of this documentary-made-musical to make themselves better. Because even more than being a decent piece of musical theatre, Southern Comfort is a dadgum public service announcement calling on human beings to be more…well…human.
Let’s begin with a little background.
The Southern Comfort Conference is the largest, most famous transgender conference in the United States. It’s taken place annually since 1991 and features seminars, events, speeches by prominent people in the LGBT community and numerous vendors catering to transgender and transsexual people. The conference has built a reputation as a safe place for LGBT people with a familial atmosphere, and aims at inclusiveness. It attracts people from all over the country. As of this writing, the group’s Facebook page blares: “It’s announcement time!!! The 2019 Southern Comfort Transgender Conference will be held August 15-18, 2019 at the fabulous Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard in beautiful downtown Ft. Lauderdale, FL!!! Mark it down on your calendars now!” #southerncomfortconference #greatertogether
The conference provided the title for documentary that won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. It’s a story about the life and death of Robert Eads, whose goal in 1998 was to live long enough to attend the conference. Ironically, he was dying from Ovarian Cancer. Eads made it to the conference, and his speech is featured in the documentary. In honor of Eads’ memory, the conference offers health exams through the annual “Robert Eads Health Project” in collaboration with the Trans Health Initiative at the Feminist Women’s Health Center.
The musical version about Eads’ “chosen family,” including five transgender members and a cisgender woman in love with a transgender man, features a book and lyrics by Dan Collins and a strong, country-inspired score by Julianne Wick Davis. This is the same duo whose work on the musical Trevor promises to jump from Glencoe’s Writers Theatre to a Broadway stage in the not-too-distant future.
Southern Comfort premiered in 2016, off Broadway at New York’s Public Theater. Unfortunately, the controversy for casting of cisgender actors to play transgender roles overshadowed the material. Since then, it’s been staged in several venues around the country and makes its Chicagoland debut here with Pride.
This production, casting transgender actors in all transgender roles, is lovingly directed by transgender artist J.D. Caudill, who also works with Chicago companies Hell in a Handbag and Broken Nose Theatre. The depth of the each characterization is the chief takeaway from this production, permitting patrons the opportunity to understand these family members as individuals with unique stories and then, most pointedly, as a sum of its parts.
Robert, born Roberta, disowned by his parents for his gender “choice,” sets up his home in rural Georgia and shepherds a group of transgender friends as chosen family. They meet every Sunday at Robert’s modest home for dinner and a sharing of familial love. Robert’s chosen son Jackson comes off as the least grounded of the group, perhaps because he’s most affected by Robert’s illness. Other family members include Sam, a young trans young man, coupled with Melanie, a young woman. Lola, Robert’s love interest, a tenderly worried transgender woman working to feel comfortable in her own skin, is being brought into the family. As is Jackson’s current love, Carly, a fully confident transgender woman. The story revolves around plans to attend the Southern Comfort Conference, giving Lola the prom she never had, before Robert’s illness takes him.
Accompanying Caudill’s terrific work with characterizations is the heroic effort of Musical Director Robert Ollis. He worked with original composer Wick Davis, who agreed to transpose songs to better fit the ranges of transgender actors.
“After we selected our cast of trans actors for the five trans roles, based upon their acting and singing abilities, we determined that it would be necessary to change keys on most of their songs from what had been used in the New York production, because of the difference in casting choices that they had made,” Ollis said. “J.D. and I met individually with each of our actors and sang through their particular songs, determining what would be the ideal key for that person. In most cases, it was substantially different than the original versions.”
North Homeward plays Robert with a sense of compassion only gained through understanding. Says Ollis about his terrific vocal work, “The key role of Robert was written in the soprano range for Annette O’Toole, but it didn’t work just to have North sing the songs an octave lower, since that would have made the songs way, way too low (in a low-bass range.) North’s voice follows a more baritone/tenor range and we wanted to find the areas that were the strongest for him to be able to project the songs comfortably. So all of Robert’s songs were transposed.
“Likewise, the male cisgender actor (Jeff McCarthy) who played Lola had a typical baritone voice, but our Kyra Leigh has a lovely mezzo-soprano vocal range. It wouldn’t work to have her sing everything an octave higher, because then the songs would be very, very high. So we found the perfect mid-range for Kyra and then made that request to Julianne.” Leigh’s portrayal is perfectly balanced—tragic without being tortured, allowing her acceptance into the group and the hint that she will become its guiding force following Robert’s death.
Ollis continued, “Although Carly is played by a trans actor in both NYC (Ameesh Sheth) and our production, every person has a different range, so we made the necessary adjustments to fit (the strong) Ricki Pettinato, working with Julianne.
“As I have been told (I have no first hand knowledge of this), for those trans actors who take hormones as part of the transition process, the voice gradually deepens for trans males. Depending upon where one is in the process, apparently, this affects how low one’s voice is, at the moment. Thus it’s understandable that our Sam or Jackson wouldn’t necessarily have the same range as the (trans actors) who played those roles in the New York cast. (So we DID raise Jackson’s songs about 1/3 rd higher, to find a good range for (the heartfelt performance of) Lizzy (Sulkowski), and adjusted Benji’s songs a step or two up” (for the tender portrayal of Sam by Benjamin Flores).
In addition, Ollis chose a magnificent ensemble of musicians to serve as “Storytellers.” Stepping away from the onstage pit enveloped within Jeremy Hollis‘ representative rustic set, members of this talented quintet portray numerous minor characters and do a good bit of the heavy vocal lifting. Each song on which they harmonize is a musical highlight. Led by the incredibly talented keyboardist Justin Harner, who just closed Brown Paper Box’s Little Women, the band includes Mario Aivazian, Taylor Dalton, Candice Kight and Kimberly Lawson. Kight particularly shines in her “welcome to Chicago” performance. There doesn’t seem to be a stringed instrument she hasn’t mastered, and her dulcet voice is the loveliest in this entire, talented cast. Her solos and duets with Aivazian are true vocal delights, and the prediction here is that Kight will be playing on stages across Chicagoland for a long, long time.
Indeed, this is no mere musical. And it may not be perfect. But the truth of Pride’s Southern Comfort, as is the mission of this company dedicated to the LGBT community, is its authenticity, evident in every dadgum aspect of the show. Because of that, it might just make some people find their better selves.
Pride Films & Plays presents “Southern Comfort” through March 31 at The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.