“All is Calm” revolves around the powerful true story of the unofficial ceasefires during World War I among British, French and German soldiers in the trenches along the Western Front around Christmas of 1914. Defying orders, the enemy combatants simply left the trenches for No Man’s Land and exchanged greetings, tobacco and chocolate, photographs… and songs. The show, created by Theater Latté Da as a radio drama, was first performed 11 years ago in Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis and broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio. It has since become a staple holiday show on tour. It is now being presented through December 30th in New York at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. The production is certainly polished and occasionally poignant. But “All is Calm” strikes me as not quite the staged version of a Ken Burns-like “docudrama” that its creators claim for it; it’s best appreciated as a beautifully sung, intelligent Christmas concert.
Yes, all the words in-between the songs are dug up from historical archives, primarily brief excerpts from diaries and letters and poems by soldiers who were there, with even briefer statements by such historical figures as Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Pope Benedict XV
There is no question that some of what they say hits home. “We were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.”
But the cast sings more than 30 songs in 75 minutes; you can do the math. For all the dramatically-lit haze and stoic faces, the 10 performers speaking the words of 39 men have little time to develop characters or create scenes. It would take a truly discerning theatergoer to focus in on any specific individuals; we rarely see them as anything other than members of an a cappella choral group, which is how writer and director Peter Rothstein largely presents them in his staging. Their spoken words mostly help establish a timeline, which allows the songs to be grouped under five sections (as the program notes) – “The Optimistic Departure,” “the Grim Reality,” “Christmas,” “The Truce,” “Return to Battle.”
The music ranges from patriotic songs of the era to popular songs from each culture to Christmas carols to revelatory ditties such as (sung to the tune of “What a friend we have in Jesus”):
When this bloody war is over
no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy we shall be
Music arrangers Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach feel like the real stars of “All is Calm,” when the cast sings “Silent Night” simultaneously in English, French and German, or when the sentimental “Auld Lang Syne” segues into the cynical “We’re Here Because We’re Here,” and we realize it’s the same tune.
In the epilogue of “All Is Calm,” before the final reprise of “Silent Night,” we hear something that’s even more bracing: “The Christmas Truce was never to be repeated. By the end of the War, 68 million men had been mobilized, more than nine million killed. “
.Accompanying the show at the Sheen Center is an exhibition about the Rev. Francis P. Duffy, a chaplain during World War I – and the priest whose statue is on Father Duffy Square in the theater district.
All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
Written and directed by Peter Rothstein. Musical Arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Costume design by Trevor Bowen, lighting design by Marcus Dilliard, sound design by Nicholas Tranby
Cast Sasha Andreev, David Darrow, Benjamin Dutcher, Ben Johnson, Mike McGowan, Tom McNichols, Riley McNutt, Rodolfo Nieto, James Ramlet and Evan Tyler Wilson
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $71 to $91
All is Calm is on stage through December 30, 2018