December 17, 2010.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press.
Musical theater is an art form that customarily asks you to suspend your disbelief. After all, real life rarely involves people bursting into song to express their feelings or tell a story.
But "All Is Calm" is something else. It has the kind of slice-of-reality feel that you might expect from a documentary film. Yet celluloid can't capture the emotional power delivered by the production currently being presented at Minneapolis' Pantages Theatre. A collaboration of Theatre Latte Da and the male vocal group Cantus, it's a production that can transport audiences to parts of the heart rarely explored by taking them to a place few would want to be: the trenches of Europe during World War I.
"All Is Calm" tells the story of Christmas 1914, when enemy soldiers laid down their arms, stepped over the coils of barbed wire and got to know one another by exchanging songs, stories, gifts and grief as they helped bury one another's dead. Its text is taken from letters of soldiers who were there, delivered with acute attention to accents and character development by actors John Catron, David Roberts and Alan Sorenson.
But what makes the production so powerful are the voices of the men of Cantus, their harmonies laden with layers of complex and conflicted tones, expressing combinations of fear and joy, relief and sadness. While the letters home express some admirably candid observations, it's the songs that flesh out the feelings behind them.
Over the course of a little more than an hour, "All Is Calm" takes audiences around many a hairpin emotional curve. Warm carols give way to a sad song of death, the chorus engulfed in a fog reminiscent of the poison gas used on battlefields of the day. The bawdy drinking songs of the English are interrupted by the Germans' soft and lovely "O Tannenbaum," and, in the drama's turning point, the solo rendition of "Stille Nacht" that proves an act of radical compassion.
The soldiers of "All Is Calm" boldly step over the proscribed boundaries of their conflict. With this work, Rothstein and Cantus have created something that takes the holiday musical to far more powerful places than one might expect possible.
What: Cantus, Theatre Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust's production of "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" by Peter Rothstein
When: 7:30 p.m. today, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pantages Theatre, 710 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
Tickets: $35-$27.50, available at 800-982-2787 or hennepintheatretrust.org
Capsule: A deeply involving piece that deserves to become a local Christmas tradition.