As someone who feels suffocated by our cultural fixation on nostalgia, an original musical is a breath of fresh air. Love and Southern D!scomfort isn’t a jukebox musical, an adaptation of some beloved film or novel, or yet another revival of The Music Man. It’s trying for something original, if not necessarily groundbreaking, and that deserves praise and attention.
Unfortunately, if you didn’t attend the two-day run at the Charleston Music Hall, you missed it. And that’s a shame, because the creation of a new piece of theater requires productions and audiences to grow. The playwrights, directors, actors, designers, and producers need audience reactions to know what does and doesn’t work with a new show as it makes its way from readings to workshops to trial runs and then eventually, hopefully, to the Great White Way.
Monica L. Patton, who wrote the book, and Bobby Daye, who did music and lyrics, have high ambitions for their new musical. Love and Southern D!scomfort follows the trials of Wilhelmina Dejoie (Joy Gregory) in the aftermath of the death of her mother. Wilhelmina has been left out of her mother’s will and could end up with nothing.
The entirety of the estate has been left to her estranged daughter Milla (a fantastic Tonya Smalls Williams), who wants nothing to do with her drunk, drug-addled mother. Despite clear animosity between the two and no apparent desire to reconcile, Milla returns to her hometown to live in her grandmother’s house and deal with her mother for … some reason.
In any new work, there are kinks to work out, and it’s here in the narrative that LaSD has the most room to grow as a piece. Several of the characters are missing clear motivations for their actions, and as such are robbed of any sense of conclusion to their narrative arcs. While the reasoning behind Milla returning home is satisfying, there’s no explanation for why she engages, let alone indulges and even connects with, a mother that so clearly has caused her deep emotional trauma.
And Wilhelmina gives us no reason to root for such a reconciliation. She’s very troubled and very problematic, and while the story gives ample explanation for why she became this way, it fails to give her traits that would make us want better for her. And it never gives her a moment in the script where her actions propel her own change for the better or assist in anyone else’s.
For as short as the script falls at this stage in the process (and that’s really short — Act 2 is a mess), the score picks up the ball and carries it quite far indeed. To put it plainly, these songs are incredible. A mediocre musical can be elevated to legendary heights by an unforgettable slate of songs (I’m looking at you Rent) and Bobby Daye has done wonderful work here.
“What Am I Thinking,” “Perfected Grace,” “Memory Lane;” honestly I could keep going with songs that really nailed it. At this stage in development the score is the strongest part of this show and truly serves to elevate the characters and story in the way a musical should.
It helps that the show is full of incredible performers at the top of their games. Tonya Smalls Williams brings a powerhouse singing voice and moving vulnerability to Milla throughout. And Joy Gregory absolutely slays the knockout number “Liquid Courage.”
Felicia P. Fields as Louisa brings a hilarious charm to Act 1 but counters that with superb depth in Act 2. Scott Pattison elevates an unfortunately one-note villain into an entertaining foil. My heart goes out to the talented Kendrick Marion, whose joyful energy and wonderful singing as potential love interest Leland is utterly sabotaged by an outrageous Act 2 reveal.
I’m very glad I got to see Love and Southern D!scomfort at this stage in its life cycle. As a playwright and a champion for new and original work, I hope to see the show again someday down the line when it has evolved more and grown a lot. Maybe, eventually, hopefully, on the Great White Way.
The next showing of Love and Southern D!scomfort takes place in May 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow the production’s website for updates.