Monday, November 11, 2013

ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 • Mustard Seed Theatre

This a capella musical documents a true and all too brief period of time during the First World War on Christmas Eve.  At dawn, only months into the war, after hearing and trading carols across the trenches, a German soldier crossed the lines of the Western front into no-man's-land wishing a "Merry Christmas" in native tongues.  Seeing that he was unarmed, British and French soldiers eventually did the same.  They ended up meeting in the middle where they exchanged gifts of puddings and cigarettes, sang songs, played a little soccer, and together buried their dead.

Charlie Barron, Gary Glasgow, Shawn Bowers,
Jason Meyers, Tim Schall, Antonio Rodriguez,
Jeffrey Wright, J. Samuel Davis, Luke Steingruby
and Christopher Hickey.
Photo credit: John Lamb
"All is Calm", originally produced by Cantus vocal ensemble and Theater Latté Da and its artistic director Peter Rothstein, seems more of a musical retelling of history than anything else.  The script is based on the actual letters of men from various regiments, brigades and infantries who lived it.  Along with commentary on the incredible events of that Christmas Eve in 1914, the letters also describe, in vivid detail, the enthusiasm of the young soldiers as they leave for the war, evocative descriptions of their surroundings, the thrill of receiving parcels from home, the devastating loss of friends, and the making of new ones across enemy lines -- if only for a short time.

The songs that range from ballads, traditional folk songs, patriotic songs and Christmas carols include, "Will Ye Go to Flanders?", a Scottish folk song, "Pack up you Troubles", "The Old Barbed Wire", an English traditional song, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", a 12th century chant, "Wassail", and over a dozen more.  Twenty-three songs in all are beautifully presented in an intermissionless 60 minutes that fly by.  

Christopher Hickey, Gary Glasgow, Tim Schall,
Jason Meyers, J. Samuel Davis, Luke Steingruby,
Shawn Bowers, Jeffrey Wright, Antonio Rodriguez
and Charlie Barron.
Photo credit: John Lamb
I try not to gush so pointedly over things too much (what?), but with Joe Schoen's musical direction, the pitch-perfect harmonies and meticulously placed ranges of this clarion-voiced group made me have to close my eyes and breathe in deeply after several numbers.  You know what I mean when that happens, right?  Nothing like it.  The ensemble, including Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright, delivers these songs in a manner that is just plain stunning.  It's hard to pick anyone out since these guys make for such a tight ensemble, but Rodriguez deserves a special mention (and the trumpet!  Who knew?) along with Tim Schall.  But again, they were all splendid.

Tim Schall, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers,
Luke Steingruby, Jeffrey Wright and Charlie Barron.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Each member gets an assortment of lines, taking on the role of different soldiers from the letters during the play, and the range of dialects they exhibit were also impressive, with Richard Lewis serving as the dialect coach.  Kyra Bishop's scenic design includes strands of barbed-wire across the stage, boxes, barrels and crates, with the no-man's-land in the middle, and the backdrop view of a muddled, smoky landscape.  Michael Sullivan's lighting design illuminates this background beautifully, providing low suggestive lights, and Jane Sullivan perfectly costumes the men in military garb that unifies them while still differentiating the various ranks.  Deanna Jent's insightful direction is simple enough to let the vocals and stories shine, while drawing clear lines of definition onstage.  Along with the direction, Jent, also the artistic director, made the decision to bring this show to Mustard Seed -- a decision you'll be grateful for.

The soldiers were eventually forced back down into the trenches to re-arm themselves after their actions received strong criticism from high ranking officers.  Nothing like it ever happened again, and WWI ended up claiming the lives of millions. Maybe the weight of those facts is a part of why "All is Calm" is so impactful, along with the humanity that seems inherent during the Holiday season.  And man, those voices…  If the hair on the back of your neck doesn't stand on end, there's something wrong with you.  Ha!  Nah, I'm just kidding.

Kind of...

Go see it.  It's playing until the 24th. 


By Peter Rothstein
Musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach 
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through November 24 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis*, Gary Glasgow*, Christopher Hickey*, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall*, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; music director, Joe Schoen; props manager, Meg Brinkley; dialect coach, Richard Lewis; stage manager, Katie Donnelly.

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