Chicago Theater Review: THE CIVILITY OF ALBERT CASHIER (Permoveo Productions at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 7, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


A brand-new musical about the past intersects the present with a vengeance. A world premiere from Permoveo Productions and Pride Films & Plays, The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier, now in a powerpacking debut at Stage 773, delivers a searing perspective on today. Its story and score fearlessly engage the recent ban on transgendered soldiers serving in the military, the infamous “heritage” of Confederate statues, and the subjection and exclusion of women both in society and the army. It’s a big task for a blast from the past. The fact that this mind-blowing, heart-opening musical is non-negotiably true is absolutely crucial.

In 150 minutes and two action-filled acts the new work—book by Paul Deratany, music by Joe Stevens and director Keaton Wooden, and lyrics by Stevens, Wooden and Deratany—chronicles from 1861 to 1914 the astonishingly supple career of Albert Cashier. Formerly Jennie Irene Hodgers, this unsettled person started dressing as a man as a teen, then, when the Civil War began, decided at 19 to serve “his” country as a private in Company G of the 95th Infantry, an Illinois regiment.

Considered petite (5’3”) and private, the blue-eyed enlistee and her intrepid fellow-fighters under Grant’s command covered 9,000 miles and fought in over 40 battles. She successfully escaped when captured by Confederates. She avoided detection while in a military hospital with chronic diarrhea. She was honorably discharged on August 17, 1865. “He” kept his identity as a man for the rest of her life, never marrying, voting in several elections, and receiving a pension.

Just as remarkably, after working as a farmhand, church janitor, cemetery worker and street lamplighter, Albert broke her leg in 1911—and the attending physician kept Albert’s self-made gender reassignment a secret. Succumbing to dementia, in old age Albert was transferred from the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy, Illinois to the more punitive Watertown State Hospital for the Insane. There, newly exposed, Jennifer was forced to wear a corset and female attire. Nonetheless, when she died in 1915 at the age of 72, she was buried in her old Union uniform. The headstone was inscribed “Albert D. J. Cashier, Co. G. 95 Ill. Inf.” Jennifer was long gone.

It would have been tempting for this musical’s creators and director Wooden to make this 2017 presentation retroactively politically correct, with a proto-feminist, “trans”-minded Albert depicted as a crusader before his time. Instead The CiviliTy (a clumsy punctuation amid tortured wordplay) keeps it actual. It refuses to speculate on Jennifer’s specific reasons for becoming—and, more remarkably—staying a man, other than the obvious freedom that came with the “territory” in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Instead, 18 serviceable, pop-country, and perfectly performed songs stick with the story, interpolating period songs like “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Somebody’s Darling,” “Faded Coat of Blue” and even “Dixie” into a persuasive whole. Eschewing editorializing, the numbers, beautifully shaped by musical director Jon Schneidman, contemplate or confront the barbarity of war (“Civilized”), perplexing parallels (“I’m Alive”), slavery rather than states’ right as the real “casus belli” (“What Will You Fight For?”), the fluidity of identity (“What Is Real?”), and sheer survival (“Breathe. Walk. Home.”).

At the core of this stunner are two performances that root rhetoric in reality. Katherine Condit plays Old Albert with tensile conviction and sterling dignity. A former Glee Project performer and contestant on America’s Got Talent, Dani Shay is a phenom as Young Albert, completely convincing as an androgynous pretty boy who would have passed any inspection. Both sing their lungs—and hearts—out: Shay soars in the ambitious opener “Bullet in a Gun,” the enthralling first-act finale “Better,” and the arching anthem “I Gotta Try.” Equally kinetic, Condit (“It’s My Right to Be Free”) joins this “non-binary trans singer” in the deeply devotional “Praying for the Light.”

More imagined than true, Billy Rude plays the awkwardly named Jeffrey (as in Jefferson) Davis, Albert’s wartime companion and, when he discovers her sex, love interest (the affecting ballad “Excuse Me Sir”). Their “The Perfect Home” is a heartbreaking lament for what might have been. Cameron Armstrong seminally depicts an African-American freedman and medic in the Grand Army of the Republic, as much a minority as Jennifer. He declares his pantheistic passions in his glorious solo “Following the Sound.”

Another soldier, John (Jonathan Stombres), conveys his escapist fantasies in the tribute anthem “Chicago,” while Delia Cropp, as an unsympathetic Nurse Smith, incarnates transphobic hostility in the arch duet “Woman to Woman.” In the thrilling chorus “Brothers in Arms,” nicely choreographed by Derek Van Barham, the 13-strong ensemble testify to the real reason to remember the Civil War, an anomaly today among so many false ones.

A restorative reminder of what’s best about America and what’s yet to keep its promise, CiviliTy is some very welcome theater. The new venture has inspired the best in everyone connected with it. And that will include its audiences as well.

photos by Cole Simon

The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier
Permoveo Productions
in association with Pride Films & Plays
Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7; Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on October 15, 2017 EXTENDED to October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit Stage 773
for more info, visit Albert Cashier The Musical

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


Matt Dominguez September 8, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Lawrence – Unsure as to why the main character’s gender is placed in quotations everywhere.

That’s where the clumsy punctuation is located.

Lawrence Bommer September 11, 2017 at 7:03 am

To show the fluidity of gender by seeking the same malleability in punctuation.
Wikipedia acknowledges Albert as a woman in all its pronouns.
I did the same while putting quotes in certain places—NOT everywhere—to show Albert was a work in progress, if progress means becoming a “man.”

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