Story: Five months after the outbreak of World War I, a number of British, French and German troops positioned in trenches alongside “no man’s land” 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 the 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 common humanity on a quiet battlefield.
Highlights: 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 by a cast of 10 talented singers. The accomplished performers blend their diverse voices in affecting harmony to breathe new life into this century-old tale that is quietly touching and inspirational.
Other Info: Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis, spent two years researching this true, 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 debuted 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.
Only momentarily does the performance drag. Always, though, it is quickly resuscitated with the rousing or touching delivery of songs by these 10 voices that form a cohesive unit with striking clarity. Truly an ensemble piece in the truest definition of the word, All Is Calm features each performer essaying a couple of historical figures, mostly unknown but all people whose innate goodness transcended the insanity around them.
Jent’s direction is disciplined and direct, letting the songs move the audience as well as the men who inhabit Kyra Bishop’s evocative set of barbed wire and boards on either side of the stage and ‘no man’s land.’ Lighting designer Michael Sullivan utilizes a background screen to depict explosive flashes or a still winter night, while Jane Sullivan’s costumes adorn the players in World War I military uniforms for various ranks. Meg Brinkley adds fine touches with props that help convey the camaraderie.
A special nod goes to dialect coach Richard Lewis, whose efforts are handsomely realized in convincing efforts by Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey and J. Samuel Davis, among others affecting Irish, Scottish, German and other accents.
Besides the aforementioned players, Schoen’s music direction impressively guides performers contributing to the tight, crystal-clear warbling who include Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, Jason Myers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright.
Each of them showcases his own impressive vocal abilities. As a unit, they also mesh in depicting the common bonds of these everyday men who were thrust into a war not of their own making, a war none of them finds satisfying or meaningful.
Rothstein points out in notes about his research that more soldiers died from disease than from gunfire in World War I, which claimed millions of lives before it ended in 1918.
For one brief, shining moment soldiers from different countries on both sides of the terrible and senseless conflict banded together to salute each other’s essential humanity. That moment is beautifully realized in this musical and in Mustard Seed’s marvelously taut and tender representation. It’s a sobering but splendid way to usher in the 2013 holiday season, early albeit well received.
Musical: All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: November 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24
Tickets: $20-$30 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb