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‘Southern Comfort’ review: Stirring story of Georgia transgender group

Annette O'Toole, left, and Jeff McCarthy in "Southern

Annette O'Toole, left, and Jeff McCarthy in "Southern Comfort," the new musical at the Public Theater. Credit: Carol Rosegg

WHAT “Southern Comfort”

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $30-$50; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE Enjoyable bluegrass musical with breakthrough concerns.

The Public Theater has been in the forefront of high-profile theater about so many previously raw subjects — Vietnam and AIDS, for starters — that we could be blasé about yet another first. This would be a mistake.

“Southern Comfort,” based on Kate Davis’ 2001 prizewinning documentary about a transgender community in rural Georgia, is an enjoyable middle-of-the-road bluegrass musical about material up until recently considered untouchable.

If not for the subject matter, director Thomas Caruso’s production of this might seem like one of those jaunty, old-fashioned little countrified musicals — like “Pump Boys and Dinettes” but with a dying hero, alienated families and an argument about the deep ethics of gender reassignment surgery. Annette O’Toole is terrific, and unrecognizable, as Robert, born Barbara, who is the head of what these friends consider their “chosen family” and who, significantly, has late-stage ovarian cancer. Jeff McCarthy is touching as Carly, Robert’s closeted lover, while Jeffrey Kuhn, Aneesh Sheth, Robin Skye and Donnie Cianciotto are wonderful as friends and lovers.

The music by composer Julianne Wick Davis and author-lyricist Dan Collins is performed by a five-piece band on James J. Fenton’s small, woodsy set. The sound is sometimes overly familiar; the resolutions are a bit pat. Even so, we keep realizing that the unpretentious breakthrough of a show expresses feelings and ideas never onstage before. Not incidentally, two of the actors are transgender.

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