Friday, December 16, 2016

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 - Theater Latte Da at Pantages Theatre

2015 Production photo by George Byron Griffiths
Friends, there is a plethora of holiday shows for your theatergoing enjoyment this year, but I promise you:

No show will touch your heart more than All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theater. Nor will you hear more exquisite music and singing.

The curtain rises on a dark stage, and gradually the cast of twelve men take shape through the fog, singing "Will Ye Go to Flanders?"

In seventy breathtaking minutes, we hear the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers met in No Man's Land and played football, took photographs, exchanged addresses and buried their dead. And they sang.

2015 Production photo by George Byron Griffiths
Writer and director Peter Rothstein uses the words of real First World War soldiers and officers to provide insight into the experience of men going excitedly off to war, fighting and losing comrades, and being in a trench just yards away from the enemy, day and night.

The musical arrangements are by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach and they are gorgeous. For a seventy-minute show, this show has an amazing number of songs, many arranged by Lichte. Songs overlap and interweave in a gorgeously complicated fashion and include French, Flemish, English, German and Scottish songs and carols, as well as soldiers' tunes and the occasional popular song of the day.

All Is Calm originally began as a piece with separate singing by Cantus and narration by a few actors. Last year they presented this new version, which has both the singers narrating the actual words of the soldiers and officers as well as singing these beautifully arranged songs. With no orchestra, I might add.

2015 Production photo by George Byron Griffiths
The new fusion of song and story takes this show to an entirely new level. I saw the show back in December 2007 and found it lovely, but seeing this version last year blew me away. 

Instead of focusing on the artistry of the singing, this staging lends a realism and an immediacy to the show that makes it all the more emotional. Also, the musical arrangements allow for individual voices to be heard, so that when the voices blend together, the effect is staggering. 

And can we talk about the cast? 

Twelve actor/singers portray dozens of soldiers and officers with authenticity and sincerity, moving between characters (and accents!) with seeming ease. Eleven of the twelve cast members are returning from last year, and this year's addition--gorgeous baritone Andrew Wilkowske, who's normally seen on opera stages, including Minnesota Opera's perfect The Magic Flute--could not be more welcome. 

A few more standouts: Evan Tyler Wilson singing "The First Noel" with his exquisite tenor voice that feels heaven-sent--I don't think I breathed the whole time he sang. Michael Gruber, lending a marvelous gravity to his roles (and wearing a kilt to death), Brandon Grimes, intense and definitely one to watch, and Max Woijtanowicz, as always adding humor and poignancy. 

Every single one of the twelve performers was marvelous. I loved picking out their individual voices, and thrilling at the way they blended. Shoutouts to every one: Paul R. Coate, Benjamin Dutcher, Brian Frutiger, Ben Johnson, Riley McNutt, James Ramlet, and Bryan Wells.

We were fortunate to attend a performance followed by a talkback (beautifully moderated by Paul R. Coate), which revealed additional details about the truce, including the suppression of reports about the event by German and Allied leaders, and the sobering revelation that many, if not most, of the soldiers quoted in the play did not return from the war. There is one more talkback, after the matinee performance on December 17, and it's definitely worth your time to get insight from Rothstein's extensive research and the actors' deep connection with the material.

Group photograph showing men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin
Fusiliers with German soldiers in no man's land on
Boxing Day 1914. Photo from the Imperial War Museum (HU35801)
From Peter Rothstein's Director's Note in the program:
"One of the reasons I love working in the theater, versus film or television, it because the theater is a two -way street. It asks the audience to engage their imagination in order to complete the story. So here are the words and the songs of these remarkable men. Completing the story, putting a human face on war--well, that's up to you. To the thousands of men who changed history, thank you. May we do your story justice."
Go see this beautiful show. It's the perfect antidote to the state of the world today, and reminds you that there is always beauty and art, no matter how horrible things may be.

*Afterthought: My sister wants me to mention that she was impressed that the costumes (by Trevor Bowen) included hand-rolled puttees. Nice touch of authenticity!