THE BASICS: ALL IS CALM, a musical written by Peter Rothstein, directed and staged by Susan Drozd, presented by MusicalFare, runs through December 12 at 4380 Main Street on the Daemen College Campus. (Tip: entry off Getzville Road is easier.) Wednesdays – Thursdays 7pm, Fridays 7:30, Saturdays 3:30 and 7:30, Sundays 2. (No performance on Thanksgiving.) 716-839-8540 musicalfare.com Runtime: 70 minutes, no intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: After only a few months, World War One had devolved into static trench warfare, with the British and their allies mired in conflict against the Germans and their allies. But on Christmas Eve, 1914, a few months into the conflict, upon hearing some Germans sing carols, the Brits also put down their weapons and joined their enemies, unarmed, in “No Man’s Land” between the trenches of Ypres, Belgium, where they exchanged small gifts, sang together, buried their dead, and even played a game of soccer. And then it was over. But not the war, which dragged on for four more deadly years. In this musical, ten male actors play a variety of British, Irish, French, and German soldiers of all ranks.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: I saw this musical on its second night, November 11. The date (11/11) is significant in that the major hostilities of World War One were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. Originally called Armistice Day, in the U.S. it’s now call Veteran’s Day, while in Canada and elsewhere it’s called Remembrance Day.
You may have heard of “The Christmas Truce” because of this musical which was aired on PBS, but there has also been a movie called “Joyeux Noel,” and even an opera about this event which I saw at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown. But it’s not a well-known story. The show’s creator, Peter Rothstein, has theorized that at the time it was not in the interests of the military-industrial complex to promote the idea of our common humanity. I would add that the longer any war continues, the more money is to be made..Indeed, many of us in the audience would have known people who were involved in subsequent protracted conflicts which had no clear conclusion, including the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, and in our current time, the War in Afghanistan.
In a piece titled “Creating All is Calm,” Peter Rothstein writes about his creation:
“I studied World War I in high school and college, but I don’t remember reading about the Christmas Truce in any of my textbooks. If I had, I certainly would have remembered. This extraordinary event took place in 1914, the first year of the war, and was never repeated. Thousands of men put down their guns and left their trenches to meet their enemies in No Man’s Land. They exchanged gifts of tobacco, rum and chocolates; even photographs of loved ones. They sang songs, played a game of soccer, and buried each other’s dead. Upon orders from above, they eventually returned to their trenches and re-instigated a war that would last four more years. So why did I not learn of this remarkable event? The propaganda machine of war is powerful, and news of soldiers fraternizing across enemy lines would put a human face on the Germans and readily undermine public support for the war. The heroes of this story are the lowest of the ranks — the young, the hungry, the cold, and the optimistic — those who acted with great courage to put down their guns, overcoming a fear that placed a gun in their hands in the first place. Their story puts a human face on war, and that’s the story I hope to tell.”
And the story is told in two ways: With quotes from soldier’s letters which are spoken aloud by the actors and also with songs. Some songs were solos and many were choral renditions of popular morale boosters from the era including “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag.” And there were many carols, some sung in both English and German, such as “Silent Night/Stille Nacht,” and some in their own languages including French.
There are no central characters. Instead, each actor takes on multiple roles as the scenes change rapidly and fluidly. Every play or musical has a credit for “Direction” but here recent Artie Award winner Susan Drozd is credited for both “Direction and Staging” which I believe recognizes her ability to put ten guys, all similarly dressed, into a compact space, and have those rapid and fluid scene and character changes appear to be organic while they are relatively easy to follow. I say relatively because, even if you don’t absolutely know which regiment any particular soldier is from in any particular scene, that’s one of the main points of this piece. Take away the insignias, the funny (to the other side’s point of view) helmets, the accents, and then the characters are all somebody’s son, somebody’s husband, somebody’s buddy doing their best in an impossible situation.
The acting response to Drozd’s direction and staging was also first rate, featuring many MusicalFare regulars including Kyle J. Baran, Louis Colaiacovo, Chris Cummings, Bob Mazierski, recent Artie Award winner Ricky Needham, Marc Sacco, Darryl Semira, and introducing to the MusicalFare stage Christopher Andreana and Dave Spychalski. I was especially looking forward to seeing Christian Brandjes whom I had seen a number of years ago at Irish Classical Theatre in OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TOWARDS THE SOMME about a Northern Irish regiment in World War One. The Somme was the sight of another protracted trench war similar to the one we are seeing in Ypres. Brandjes was a good casting choice then and now.
The solo singing was also excellent. That’s saying something, since this entire musical is sung a cappella, in other words, without any instrumental accompaniment to clue the singers as to pitch or change of key. So kudos to everyone, whether singing an operatic carol or a bawdy ballad. Getting up on stage and singing “cold” is never easy, and yet these ten men do it over and over for 70 minutes.
Kudos to everyone, whether singing an operatic carol or a bawdy ballad.
My only on-stage disappointment was in the vocal arrangements credited to Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Those guys’ arrangements of the choral numbers were often far too tricky, trying to weave together too many melodic lines. When polyphony works, it’s thrilling, and has been since The Renaissance, but it’s very hard to pull off successfully. Usually that sort of thing is best left to long-established small choral groups, including some church choirs. I might offer Buffalo’s Vocalis Chamber Choir, or the Freudig Singers, or the Harmonia Singers. Internationally, that list might include The King’s Singers or Chanticleer or Voces8. Or if those groups don’t ring a bell, just think of Manhattan Transfer.
Still, the big choral numbers were pretty good under the circumstances, and as I mentioned, the solo performances were excellent, with music direction by Theresa Quinn.
Casts come and casts go, depending on the musical. However, MusicalFare has a dedicated consistent cadre of designers who work together year after year, and, to follow up on the point I was making about long-established choirs being able to take things to the next level, design excellence happens all the time at MusicalFare.
All of the elements on stage were absolutely first rate, starting with the ultra-realistic set designed by recent Artie Award winner Dyan Burlingame.
All of the elements on stage were absolutely first rate, starting with the ultra-realistic set designed by recent Artie Award winner Dyan Burlingame. As usual with this venue, we see the set as we enter the theater space. I must say that MusicalFare sets are quite often works of art on their own and this one is not only evocative, but very useful in getting actors quickly in and out of scenes. Can’t get realistic without the lighting and sound of Chris Cavanagh and warning – the feeling of being under attack is quite realistic. Adding to the realism were the costume designs by Kari Drozd, the hair, wigs and make-up design by Susan Drozd, and the dozens of properties by Kevin Fahey. (Where did he get ten realistic looking WWI rifles?)
Apart from the too tricky by half vocal arrangements, my other disappointment is that MusicalFare, due to Covid, has done away with physical, printed programs. I get it, and anyone can download the program to a phone (QR code provided in the theater) or by going to the website, but then you can’t glance down during the performance without disrupting everyone, including the actors. So, if you’re interested in the song list, here it is, copied from that digital program:
Will Ye Go To Flanders?
PART I: THE OPTIMISTIC DEPARTURE
Come On And Join (Alexander’s Ragtime Band) God Save The King | Good-Bye-Ee
PART II: THE GRIM REALITY
It’s A Long Way to Tipperary | Les Godillots
Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag
The Old Barbed Wire | I Want To Go Home When This Bloody War Is Over Raining, Raining, Raining (Holy, Holy, Holy)
Deutschlandlied | Keep The Homefires Burning O Come, O Come Emmanuel
PART III: CHRISTMAS
Christmas In The Camp We Wish You A Merry Christmas Die Wacht Am Rhein | Christmas Day In Cookhouse O Tannenbaum
PART IV: THE TRUCE
Stille Nacht | Angels We Have Heard On High Er Is Een Kindeke Geboren
Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle | The First Noel Ihr Kinderlein, Kommet | Wassail Minuit Chretiens | Will Ye Go To Flanders? (reprise) Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen Wie Schon Leuchtet der Morgenstern Good King Wenceslas
PART V: THE RETURN TO BATTLE
Auld Lang Syne | We’re Here Because We’re Here
The Last Post | Stille Nacht (reprise)
END OF SHOW
And there you have it. ALL IS CALM. Congratulations are in order here for recent Artie Award winners. The awards ceremony was November 1 and OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE OF A MUSICAL went to MusicalFare Theatre for FUN HOME. OUTSTANDING DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL went to Susan Drozd (also for FUN HOME, MusicalFare Theatre) OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY went to Ricky Needham for his role in THE BOYS UPSTAIRS (Buffalo United Artists) and OUTSTANDING SET DESIGN went to Dyan Burlingame (for her set for THE AUTHENTIC LIFE OF BILLY THE KID at Road Less Traveled Production). With that kind of fire-power both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content of ALL IS CALM are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
Photos courtesy MusicalFare
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!