By Patrick O’Brien
For some, the want to live simply and unassumingly is a radical act.
Case in point: Albert D.J. Cashier, a small pistol who valiantly served in the Civil War with the 95th Illinois Infantry, then disappeared into the ether from whence he appeared, quietly earning his keep as a small-town laborer. Only in old age did he have to reckon with the name Jennie Hodgers, the name of the Irish immigrant orphan girl whose trail went cold precisely where Albert Cashier’s began…
While women disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War were not uncommon, Jennie Hodgers didn’t become “Albert Cashier” as a one-off means to serve. Rather, Hodgers lived as Cashier for a time before enlisting, and carried that name to the grave. In recent years, this quiet but firm persistence to live as a man has raised more than a few eyebrows among LGBTQ historians. Now, it raises its voice in a Permoveo Productions/Pride Films & Plays’ remarkable new musical, The CiiliTy of Albert Cashier, playing in Lakeview that — persistence be praised — bears its hero’s chosen name and his greatest desire: courtesy, consideration, civility. (Note the emphasization in the title.)
All the more remarkable that this is the writers’ first time at bat with a musical, albeit writers with strong LGBTQ-themed works and humanitarian efforts to their names, so in a sense, this show almost seems inevitable. (For the record, because you’ll hear from them again: Jay Paul Deratany, book/lyrics/producer; Joe Stevens, music/lyrics, and a trans man himself; and Keaton Wooden, music/lyrics/direction.) Their music has muscle in its gentle, tuneful strains; their lyrics, affable and fittingly without pretense; and, most importantly for new writers, their collective instinct to deduce which moments are worth singing about is worth noting.
The latter point needs emphasizing considering, by Director Wooden’s admission, they’re writing about a time when “gender” wasn’t in anyone’s day-to-day vocabulary. Indeed, little, if anything, is made of Cashier’s self-styled transition — from the moment he steps on stage, he is. So when the name “Jennie Hodgers” is introduced in Act Two, it fits him like a dress: clinically and uneasily.
No small feats, either, are the dual performances of Dani Shay (of note: trans, too) and Katherine Condit, splitting Albert into his past and present selves, and creating electricity when they intersect. They navigate his conscience with ironclad confidence and firm voice: the former while leaping about the stage in great feats of derring-do; the latter while slyly raising hell in a wheelchair.
All around, the production is damn near a perfect storm of ingredients needed for an optimal premiere, from a rich supporting cast — including Billy Rude as able gabber and abiding friend Jeffrey N. Davis (an unfortunate name, yes), and Cameron Armstrong, a freedman surgeon with a voice made for the folk style, both with worthy solos — to a rustically simple physical setting that’s rich in history and character, but puts the focus squarely on the text. (Jeremy Hollis’s canvas drops are used to stunning effect, and G. “Max” Maxin IV’s projections augment the back wall well.) Moves well, too: Derek Van Barham takes what he can from the Steven Hoggett school of distilling graceful movement from the mundane.
Of course, there are things that may yet need tailoring. “Chicago,” though charmingly put across by Jonathan Stombres and not without purpose (as a vicarious expression of freedom for the ailing Albert), doesn’t entirely jibe with the notion that the songs are a conduit for Albert’s memories. Then there’s the problematic Nurse (Delia Cropp, also trans). In a folk musical that steadfastly smolders, she’s a flamethrower. It’s not that the writers haven’t drawn the right bead on her, because they have; she’s a woman who, having lived “by the rules” of womanhood, chafes at (or even envies) Albert’s unorthodoxy. A subtler approach would do, which may entail cutting her solo; the Nurse is just not a “musical” character.
But better to start out writing too much than too little, and this team has done extraordinary work bringing to life someone about whom little is written. And while the notion of a musical of Albert Cashier’s life probably would have raised the man’s eyebrow in surprise, he just as much would’ve cheered its sentiment to celebrate the bonds between people of all kinds, as well as pay heed to the bonds yet to be.
Permoveo Productions/Pride Films & Plays present “The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier” through October 15th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. More information and tickets are here.