All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

All-is-Calm 75This one is special, folks. I hope you get to see it because it was a privilege to be in that room.

All-is-Calm 500

Done well, a cappella singing is the most pleasing musical sound it is possible to make, for there is no instrument so versatile as the human voice. The current show, All Is Calm: An Acapella Musical, at Mustard Seed Theatre, does it very well indeed. During the 70-minute show, I felt as if a spell were cast over the audience from the first notes of “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” by a lone soldier as he wanders in from the side of the house and is gradually joined by the rest of the cast in achingly beautiful harmony all the way through to “Auld Lang Syne” and “The Last Post” bugle call.

That this mood was set immediately is a tribute to the show and the performers because only moments before curtain, the crew was struggling to set up chairs in an aisle, and people were climbing all over each other for the few available single seats in the house. This necessity delayed the start by only a few minutes, but the clamor certainly didn’t allow the audience to have some quiet time to prepare for the experience they were about to have. Still, we were instantly transported to a battlefield on the western front of the lines in World War I with British and German troops readying to engage in mortal combat. But a kind of miracle occurred on one day, now known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, when the two sides wandered out of the trenches, shook hands, swapped cigarettes and family photos, kicked a soccer ball around and sang together.

All Is Calm is more an event than musical or play. It was originally conceived and compiled by Peter Rothstein and first performed in 2008 by the Minneapolis based men’s vocal group Cantus with arrangements by Erick Lichter and Timothy C. Takach. The first performance was a concert on public radio. Song is interwoven with statements from real people who were associated with the Great War, mainly soldiers. A chill strikes when we hear the names “Wilfred Owen,” one of the so-called “war poets” who wrote movingly of the horrors of the experience that took his life at 25, and “Siegfried Sassoon,” who lived to old age, but was also best known for his depictions of the battlefield. Owen memorably describes the terrible death by mustard gas — one of the most inhumane weapons ever conceived — in his best-known work, “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori,” making it clear that it is neither “sweet” nor “proper” to die for one’s country. Other soldiers from throughout the British Isles speak to us, Churchill and the Pope are quoted, and German soldiers, though mostly not named, get almost equal time.

For the young men fighting in the “War to End All War,” 1914-1918 seemed endless. Cold and wet and frightened out of their wits, they managed to carry on as they buried their comrades and missed the comfort of family and friends. The voices, solo and as they are most often in harmony, soar above the horror below, and strike the audience in the heart. There are humorous numbers, and soul-rending ones. The highlight for me was “Minuit Chrétiens” (O Holy Night) sung in French by the amazing Antonio Rodriguez. I’ve never been in an audience so quiet, barely breathing. (And Rodriguez is among equals; he just happened to get my favorite song.)

The cast is comprised of some of St. Louis’s best actor-singers, including Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby, and Jeffrey Wright, in addition to Rodriguez. I hesitate to single anyone out because they were all so fine. Deanna Jent (director) and Joe Schoen (music director) have made magic on Kyra Bishop’s amazing set, made even more evocative by Michael Sullivan’s lights. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are period appropriate, each a bit different from the next. Richard Lewis deserves a shout out for dialect coaching on this one. Most of the actors are note perfect in their various English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German (speaking German), French and even a bit of Belgian, accents. This one is special, folks. I hope you get to see it because it was a privilege to be in that room. | Andrea Braun

All Is Calm is at Mustard Seed Theatre at Fontbonne University’s Black Box until Nov. 24, 2013. You may call 314-719-8060, and I suggest if you want to go, you shouldn’t waste any time.

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