by Shelley A. Sackett
From the first note of the first song in the remarkably affecting ‘All Is Calm,’ the choreography chops of its director, Ilyse Robbins, are indisputably evident. Two lines of uniformed men, distinguishable by their country’s military dress, slowly march to the front of the stage as they sing the Scottish folk song, “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” They briefly merge, forming a united single line, before those in the back row return to their original and separate positions. This powerful prologue literally sets the stage and tone for the next intermission-less 70 minutes. We have entered a holy place of unity where a folksong can become a hymnal and where men have the power and ability to come together as one, even if it is merely for a fleeting moment.
This documentary musical tells a well-known true story almost exclusively through a cappella song. On Christmas Day in 1914, with World War I just five months old, enlisted men on both sides of the mucky no-mans-land trenches in Ypres, Belgium emerged to put aside their political differences and celebrate the day and their shared humanity.
Written by Peter Rothstein, the founding director of Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis who also worked at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, the play transcends its Christmas Day message and carols to deliver a powerful and universal message promoting peace, human dignity and reconciliation — a message no less welcomed by those of us lighting Hanukkah candles, spinning dreidels and recalling the battles faced by the Maccabees.
Combining storytelling, historical details, bits of poetry, archival letters and a score of 30 songs, the cast of ten men humanize their journey: from the optimism of their enthusiastic enlistment and deployment to the grim reality of war to the miraculous Christmas respite and momentary truce and back again to battle, they are individuals first, soldiers second. Robbins has gathered a splendid ensemble of complementary singing voices and acting styles, yet masterfully allows space for each performer’s unique qualities to shine as well.
The story itself is predictable. Men susceptible to war fever and the excitement it generated are crestfallen to realize that they might not survive the war they assumed would be over by Christmas. Hope curdles to despair; dreams of adventure morph into nightmares of doom. There is no revisionist history here. Rothstein presents the hardships and suffering of war in full mud-soaked misery.
What is not predictable is the emotional majesty created by Lichte and Takach’s clever interweaving and ordering of songs, particularly those chosen during the truce segment. Amidst the heartache and heartbreak of a Christmas celebrated with death and isolation instead of family and hearth, the Allied troops suddenly make out the familiar melody of “Silent Night” — sung in German. Unarmed, hands lifted and hoisting white handkerchiefs, the Germans emerge one by one. Sworn enemies unexpectedly find themselves face-to-face, one-to-one with the enemy, and “all is calm. All is bright.” Indeed, for those gun-less few moments, all is breathtakingly silent.
The men play football, exchange gifts and even help each other bury those whose deaths they caused. They talk as men, not enemies. “I have now a very different opinion of the Germans,” one soldier wistfully says.
Of course, this bottom-up hiatus can never last. Commanding officers on both sides put an immediate halt to the fraternization, and the soldiers reluctantly return to their trenches, guns obediently re-cocked and aimed. The plaintive “Auld Land Syne,” an ode to kinship remembered, switches almost imperceptibly to “We’re Here Because We’re Here,” sung mournfully as a lamentation to the immovable trap the troops find themselves in.
There are a few tricky moments with the European accents, but the cast is uniformly spot on with the a cappella singing, blending beautifully and consistently. Among the solo standouts are Christopher Chew, Brad Peloquin and David Jiles, Jr. Michael Jennings Mahoney’s haunting tenor beautifully bookended the show from prologue to epilogue.
Erik D. Diaz’s minimalist set design achieves maximum effect. A few packing crates, a starry full mooned backdrop and the constant slow seep of gauzy haze set the proper tone without distraction.
Although there is no ambiguity that ‘All Is Calm’ references Christmas, its universal message of peace transcends specificity of time, place and religion. Particularly during these times of increasing political rancor and division, this meditative production is palpably apolitical, yet makes its point while leaving us to wonder: What if ‘No Man’s Land” were truly ‘Everyman’s Land?” What if those at the top left negotiations to those in trenches? And what if those troops, ordered to go back to war after tasting the fruits of peace, had listened to Winston Churchill and simply gone on strike?
‘All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914’ – Written by Peter Rothstein; Vocal Arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach; Directed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction by Matthew Stern; Set Design by Erik D. Diaz; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Costume Design by Bethany Mullins. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company at 395 Main St., Stoneham through December 23, 2021.For more information or to purchase tickets, call (781) 279-2200 or visit greaterbostonstage.org. Masks are required for all visitors, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. For more information about safety, visit geraterbostonstage.org/health-and-safety.html.