A legendary incident of World War I occurred on Christmas Eve in 1914, when gunfire suddenly went quiet along stretches of the Western Front as British and German troops spontaneously observed an informal holiday truce during which time they climbed out of their trenches and met each other halfway across No Man’s Land.
All Is Calm, which opened tonight at the Sheen Center, is a touching musical tribute to that brief time when peace on Earth reigned over desolate battlefields. Created by Peter Rothstein, who stages this production by Theater Latté Da, the 75-minute show incorporates spoken excerpts from period letters, autobiographies, poetry, and military documents with more than 30 songs from those terrible times.
Told mostly from the British point of view, the documentary-style musical begins in an upbeat flurry of patriotic ditties and optimistic sentiments in August, 1914, as young men enlist and sail across the English Channel, confidently expecting to return home victoriously by Christmas.
Then, as a blood-soaked autumn ensues, the jaunty likes of “Pack Up Your Troubles” give way to grimmer songs such as “When This Bloody War Is Over” and “I Want to Go Home.”
Bogged down in opposing trenches within earshot of each other, coping with rats, rain, and ceaseless death, both the British and German forces struggle to observe Christmas. They hear their enemies singing holiday carols and then, as “Silent Night” is rendered sweetly first in German then English, the soldiers slowly, gingerly, approach one another across the wasteland.
A rowdy celebration erupts as the men joyfully exchange food and impromptu gifts, try on each other’s helmets, swap personal stories, and even plunge into a wild game of soccer. “Here we were, laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill,” observes one of them.
Eventually the soldiers settle down to retrieve their dead comrades for burial and finally, reluctantly, return to the trenches. An epilogue details how such fraternization was banned in the future by the military overlords. And so the slaughter went on for another four years.
Relatively simple in its staging with only ten men, and a sincerely affecting music-theater work that resonates with beautiful singing, All Is Calm suggests how essential humanity can triumph—even if only briefly, as here—over the most horrible of circumstances. “If all the troops all along the line had refused to fight, on both sides, would the war have ended there and then?” wonders a soldier.
The singing is performed entirely a cappella to musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach that provide rich and sonorous renditions of familiar holiday anthems such as “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Tannenbaum” along with Great War icons like “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” As the troops crawl back into their trenches, their mutual crooning of “Auld Lang Syne” sounds especially poignant.
Dressed in black military uniforms, the actors confidently perform the spoken text in a wide array of regional accents and they make extremely handsome music together. Rearrangements of crates and boxes against a black background and an occasionally glimmering full moon suffice as scenery, although the men are strikingly lighted in silvery, frosted shades by designer Marcus Dillard. Rothstein’s sensitive staging keeps the ensemble in fluent motion.
Incidentally, no gunshots ring out during the performance, which looks and sounds lovely in the Sheen Center’s 274-seat Loretto Theater. Sorrowful though its true story may be, All Is Calm proves to be an unusually inspiring musical event for the holiday season.