PITTSFIELD – A distinctive new musical manages to fight its way through layers of heavy-handed sentimentality in “Southern Comfort,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company under the direction of Thomas Caruso.
Based on a 2001 documentary and built on a wistful, evocative folk and bluegrass score by Dan Collins (lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music), “Southern Comfort’’ revolves around a small group of transgender friends in Georgia. They form not just a tightknit community but a “chosen family,’’ providing support and solace to one another in the face of rejection or estrangement from the outside world, including the families they were born into.
At the center of this circle is the jocular, bearded Robert Eads, played by Annette O’Toole. Robert is being steadily weakened by cancer as he develops a romantic relationship with Lola Cola, who is making the journey from male to female but struggling to come to grips with her new, or true, identity. As portrayed by Barrington Stage stalwart Jeff McCarthy (“Sweeney Todd,’’ “All My Sons’’) in the production’s most nuanced and compelling performance, Lola is a tentative, touching figure — an outsider among outsiders, at least initially.
Though its celebration of difference and its portrait of kinship among marginalized people are genuinely moving, “Southern Comfort’’ could do with less message-telegraphing and about a quart less treacle.
The slide into a saccharine tone begins early, in a scene set in the spring of 1998 in Robert’s backyard. It’s a sequence of labored folksiness during which we are introduced to the friends who regularly gather at his home: Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), whom Robert calls his son, and a pair of lovers, Melanie (Robin Skye) and Sam (Todd Cerveris). Like Robert, Jackson and Sam have transitioned from female to male. Jackson is pondering a surgical procedure called phalloplasty. That causes major friction between him and Robert, who is adamant that the question of “man or woman [is] about what’s in your heart and your head, not between your legs.’’
Yet Robert’s own inner truth comes through only sporadically in O’Toole’s portrayal. A gaunt figure in black cowboy hat, big-buckled belt, and red flannel shirt, Robert keeps up a steady stream of jovial banter, striking cheerful poses to conceal the extent of his illness from his friends. Even taking that emotional camouflage into account, though, O’Toole doesn’t dig deeply enough beneath the character’s surface mannerisms.
But the team behind “Southern Comfort’’ has a remarkable story to tell, and they’ve found a creative way to tell it. James J. Fenton’s exceptionally detailed set conveys a sense both of camaraderie and freedom (a wooden swing on which Robert joyfully pushes Lola) and protective insularity (a lattice fence), while also evoking Robert’s past. The set extends offstage into an adjacent hallway, where the audience encounters what Fenton calls “a folk art altar,’’ assembled out of an antique door, toys, tools, and boxes, on which repose pictures of Robert when he was a girl named Barbara.
“Southern Comfort’’ is the ninth world premiere produced by Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, whose artistic producer is William Finn, composer of “Falsettos’’ and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’’ During the performance of “Southern Comfort,’’ a small band of onstage musicians don’t just sing and provide musical accompaniment for such numbers as “Chosen Family,’’ “Places That Aren’t Even There,’’ and “I’m With You’’; they also portray Robert’s parents (who insist on calling him Barbara) and other minor characters. Among the musicians is David M. Lutken, who played the title character last year in “Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie’’ at the American Repertory Theater.
In addition to the matter of Robert’s worsening health and the breach between him and Jackson, a central story line of “Southern Comfort’’ concerns whether Lola will feel comfortable enough in her own skin to accompany Robert to the Southern Comfort Conference, a gathering of the transgender community in Atlanta.
Natalie Joy Johnson delivers a standout performance as Carly, who has transitioned to a woman and is involved in a complicated romance with Jackson. While conducting a conference seminar on “passing’’ as a woman, Johnson’s Carly launches into an ebullient rendition of “Walk the Walk’’ that is a high point of the show. (The role of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret’’ seems tailor-made for this actress). The show hits another peak with “My Love,’’ a poignant song in which the bonds between all three sets of lovers become beautifully clear. At moments like that, “Southern Comfort’’ feels like something special.