Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Stagecrafters
Inspiring “Comfort” Struggles in Translation
It’s obvious that even the best films may not always work well as stage musicals. This is especially true for documentaries; “Grey Gardens” comes to mind. Another such film to take that formidable leap is “Southern Comfort”, based on director Kate Davis’ award-winning 2001 film of the same name. It chronicles the real-life struggles of Robert Eads, who was born as Barbara, married and gave birth to two children before transitioning to manhood in middle age. After hormone therapy and “top” surgery, he lived a much happier life as Robert in a small, remote Georgia town.
The film was adapted into a musical by Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music). It premiered off-Broadway in March 2016 to mixed reviews, and only ran for two weeks. It had other productions in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. The central message: It’s your “chosen family”, not always your blood family, that can be the best place to find support and a soft place to land. It’s something just about anybody can relate to. The musical score is a blend of folk ballads and whimsical country-style tunes in keeping with the show’s southern backwoods setting.
This poignant story is also a timely one, given the fact that transgender people are getting the rights and acceptance they never had before. But there’s an especially cruel and ironic twist. Robert, despite his masculine identity, still has vestiges of his former self. He has ovarian cancer, and faces the battle with courage and wry humor, with a little help from his friends.
It’s Easter Sunday, 1998, and Robert gathers about him a loving group of friends for their monthly potluck. They form his family circle that includes other transgender couples and those who love him for who he is. Like any family, there are bad jokes, disputes and tensions, but somehow they rise to the challenges together.
Stagecrafters’ cast consists of six main characters and five Storytellers, a sort of Greek chorus that moves the story forward in words and music. The talented five-piece orchestra is ably guided by Curtis Rowe III. Memorable numbers include “Resurrection Day”, “Chosen Family” and “Bless Their Heart”.
There are powerful vocals by Shondra Tipler, and effective dramatic and comic performances on display: Meg Brokenshire as Carly, Emani Love as a Storyteller and Alonzo Luzod as Lola Cola. Megan Meade-Higgins turns in a marvelous and thoroughly convincing interpretation of Robert, funny and sprightly, commanding the stage. There was excellent chemistry between Meade-Higgins and Luzod, who plays Robert’s beloved.
It’s a likeable and touching show, but uneven performances and shortcomings in the material weigh it down in places. For starters, many of the songs seem redundant, with complex lyrics stating the same themes again and again in similar-sounding melodies. If a few of these songs were removed to streamline the storytelling, it would help bring the subject matter into sharper focus. And crew members moving set pieces while actors are speaking are a distraction on such a small stage. It’s common practice in theatre for crew to wear all-black, so they are less obtrusive.
But even with such issues, director Jay Kaplan and his exuberant cast put their hearts and souls into the show, and the effect can’t help but be contagious. On opening night, the lively and festive audience whooped their appreciation. Did the documentary find new life in musical theatre? That’s up for debate, but it’s worth investigating.
When: Now through May 12, 2019
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $20 – NO SEATING AFTER CURTAIN
Where: Baldwin Theatre, 2nd Stage (Upstairs)
415 S. Lafayette
Royal Oak, MI 48067