BWW Review: ALL IS CALM at Music Theatre Kansas City
There are certain stories to which we come back again and again. In the history of the First World War, possibly no story receives more attention than that of the famous informal truce of Christmas 1914. In fact there was no single incident, but a collection of informal armistices up and down the western front. Sometimes starting in the days leading up to the holiday, and involving multiple groups on both sides, there would be periods of peace, fraternization, the burial of dead and exchange of personal items (cigarettes and so on).
Over the years, the isolated incidents have gelled into a single narrative, one which has captured the imaginations of many, and been invoked in multiple media. This reviewer is aware of an opera, two plays, two movies, three TV shows and a comic book that have either featured or referenced it. Add to that number "All is Calm", a musical revue for male chorus currently being staged by Music Theatre of Kansas City, a professional company.
In terms of production, the show is very simple: the performers, singing and acting on an empty stage with projections behind them. The material - the projected images, the words both sung and spoken - are all straight from WWI, with many of the spoken passages coming from soldier diaries or letters home. The show takes us from the first great wave of recruiting in 1914 through to the days leading up to the truce, and then its aftermath.
Some two or three dozen songs are featured, a conglomeration of popular music from the time, soldiers' parodies and of course traditional Christmas music. As such, the music varies widely in sentiment from tear jerking to raucous and straight to down-your-spine sentimentality. As someone who has spent in time in uniform will attest, as good a distillation of a soldier's mindset as any.
The performances are overall very good. There were occasional slip ups in the accents, but not many. The highlight of course is the singing, and this is handled very well. Music director Julie Danielson has brought together a most impressive troupe, whose voices blend together very nicely and provided excellent harmony throughout the evening. There were moments when the live bugler slipped up, which detracted from the solemnity in a couple of key points. The pacing in the beginning is a bit off, with a feeling of rushing to get everyone in place for the main story. Possibly starting things with everyone already in the trenches might have better served, but we do get some good songs out of it, so no real harm done.
A final thought: we keep coming back to this story, again and again, and yet very little ever changes. It is as if there was one time and place where it could have happened, and now it falls forever to mythology. At the end of the show, they speak of the angry missives sent down from both high commands, absolutely forbidding any further Christmas truce. They also describe the moment the truce ended, with fighting more vigorous than ever. What creatures are we, that can gather together in such a way, and then within hours return to destroying each other?
And yet the story still resonates. Something, perhaps to do with what we are supposed to be, or what we could become if only we'd let ourselves. I don't know. But one hundred, two hundred years from now, as those we cannot imagine gather together in the depths of winter, they will still tell the story of the truce, and that all-too-brief candle that enlightened and warmed a world at war.
All is Calm is at B&B Live! until December 16th.