'All is Calm' celebrates peace ... in wartime

December 19, 2008.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press

Too often, the cause of "peace" can seem insurmountably abstract. Like eliminating hunger or pollution, creating an environment free of conflict might be too impossible to imagine for most. Where would one begin?

Well, Peter Rothstein has created an excellent musical that looks back at history for a possible starting point. "All is Calm" collects quotes and writings from German and Allied soldiers who did something radical in 1914, leaving their trenches for an impromptu Christmas celebration together in "No Man's Land."

Around this time last year, Rothstein enlisted the ideal collaborators for his piece in Cantus, a nine-man male chorus that started life at Northfield's St. Olaf College. Now they've revived "All is Calm," which opened a six-performance run at Minneapolis' Pantages Theatre on Thursday night. And it's not only an outstanding piece of musical theater, but a brilliantly executed production that understands that its power comes from its simplicity.

Such basic elements as great singing and compelling stories are all that are needed to take you to the battle-scarred fields of Europe during World War I. Any other effects are only delicate enhancements, like swirling wisps of fog or a black backdrop periodically pierced by starlight. This is a case in which the actors, singers, songs and script are the lone mode of transport. They draw you into their world of rations and rats, camaraderie, conflict and the looming specter of death, with the harmoniesof Cantus acting as the essential unifying principle. And actors John Catron, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson create a rich, complex cast of characters with their verbal dispatches.

A Winston Churchill quote finds him ruminating upon what might happen if the soldiers on each side ever decided to reject the divisions imposed upon them by their superiors and choose to wage peace. With "All is Calm," we get a glimpse of what that utopian vision might look like ... and sound like. And it proves a moving experience that should stay with you long after the last notes fade.

Rob Hubbard is an associate producer for American Public Media's "Performance Today."