Story: Five months after the outbreak of World War I, a number of Allied soldiers (represented by English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) and German troops positioned in trenches alongside “no man’s land” in Europe stopped their fighting for a brief but poignant period on Christmas Eve, 1914.
Tentative and leery at first, they slowly emerged from their rat-infested trenches to extend holiday greetings to each other. They sang songs, exchanged simple gifts and even participated in an impromptu soccer game on the frozen terrain.
Later, they were admonished by superiors for this “breach” of protocol in warfare, which was never repeated due to threats of disciplinary action. But for several hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, four years before the conclusion of “The War to End All Wars,” soldiers on opposite sides of the conflict dared to show their shared humanity on a quiet battlefield.
Highlights: Impeccably directed by Mustard Seed Theatre artistic director Deanna Jent along with musical director Joe Schoen, this hauntingly beautiful and deceptively ‘simple’ one-hour musical is masterfully performed for a fifth time by an ensemble of nine gifted performers.
Other Info: An enormously popular production when first performed by Mustard Seed in 2013, All Is Calm won five St. Louis Theatre Circle awards, including Best Musical and Best Ensemble in a Musical. This year’s presentation features a cast whose crystal-clear voices and handy way around accents and dialects make All Is Calm once again an affecting experience.
Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis, spent two years researching this historical incident at museums and libraries in Belgium and England. Collaborating with Erick Lichte and Timothy Takach, former members of the Minneapolis-based male, vocal chamber ensemble known as Cantus, they created the a cappella musical All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 in 2007.
The script is based on letters and observations of men who served in those trenches, while the tunes are a collection of traditional carols and folk songs as well as melodies popular in the early 20th century.
Since Jent first presented All Is Calm in 2013, audiences have embraced this poignant, fact-based musical. The message of friendship and peace conveyed by soldiers on both sides of the terrible war fought a century ago is a timeless and inspiring one.
Notably, this production has been mounted just after the centennial observation of Armistice Day, which unofficially ended World War I on November 11, 1918. The cast recently performed at the unveiling of the renovated Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis.
Kyra Bishop’s familiar scenic design depicts the austere battlefield landscape, with soldiers from opposing factions on either side of the set, and complements that gritty look with some handsome backdrops of a clear winter’s night. Her set is beautifully bathed in Michael Sullivan’s evocative lighting, which varies in its degree of illumination depending upon the song performed, especially poignant accentuating the clear winter night.
Jane Sullivan dresses the players smartly in the military uniforms of the era, while Laura Skroska’s props provide an extra touch to underscore the authentic feel of the presentation. Dialect coach Richard Lewis lends expert guidance to the players with their varied accents of Irish, Welsh, English and Scottish troops as well as German voices for the ‘enemy.’
Each of the men in the cast – some new, some veterans of this sobering, one-act a cappella musical – gets the chance to do solo work and all of them take advantage of the opportunity, such as Anthony Heinemann utilizing his beautifully, operatically trained tenor. They also verbalize the hopes and wishes of ordinary men placed in a most undesirable situation.
The cast features a number of singers who have appeared in at least one previous edition of Mustard Seed’s All Is Calm franchise, namely Kent Coffel, Christopher Hickey, Greg Lhamon, Gerry Love and Jeff Wright. They’re joined by newcomers Micheal Lowe, Sean Michael and Abraham Shaw, all of whom shine while singing Christmas carols as well as traditional folk songs or tunes popular in the World War I era.
Throughout the performance, director Jent utilizes the entire stage to expand the geographical imprint of the soldiers’ gestures of kindness, especially affecting in how she positions various troops as they enter the stage. Schoen’s musical direction is tight and telling in how each performer shapes his songs.
Their tunes turn depressingly discordant after the soldiers are ordered to cease and desist the mutual camaraderie, with an English bugle call sounding a somber finality to their spontaneous civility.
All Is Calm is an excellent choice for a holiday show as it underscores what the spirit of Christmas is meant to be. This fifth Mustard Seed rendition does so in a touching and tuneful manner that is both poignant and polished.
Musical: All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: Thursdays through Sundays, November 23-December 16 (no Thanksgiving show)
Tickets: $30-$35, plus “Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can” on Nov. 29, Dec. 6, Dec. 13; tickets are free for veterans. Contact mustardseedtheatre.com or 534-1111
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ann K Photography