Review: CenterStage’s ‘All Is Calm’ is one of the most moving pieces of theater you’ll see this year
Through the thick fog on stage, a solitary figure comes into view. It is a soldier. The lights slowly rise and the fog starts to lift. You see another row of soldiers. And another behind them. In the gripping, beautifully staged opening moments of CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre’s “All Is Calm,” it isn’t hard for an audience member to slip into the illusion that they, too, are back in the rotting, horrific, humanity-at-its-lowest nightmare of trench warfare. They, too, are in the middle of World War I.
As the fog slowly dissipates and the cast comes fully into view, it’s like watching ghosts of the past come to life.
This powerhouse musical production, which is currently stirring strong feelings at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District stage through Saturday, Nov. 19, is remarkable. Directed with precision and inspiration by Susan Kehler, the show is both shattering and contemplative. From the soaring harmonies (coaxed from the cast by vocal director Roger Bergman) to the moody lighting and visuals (from technical director Dan Aldape), I’m mightily impressed. I’ve seen many CenterStage productions over many years, and this has to be one of the best.
Related stories: Win tickets to Friday performance of ‘All Is Calm’
And: Preview interview: Artistic director Darren Tharp talks about ‘All Is Calm’
The musical builds up to the famed Christmas Truce of 1914, that remarkable event when soldiers from both sides of the war – which everyone thought would be over by Christmas – broke every “rule” of warfare by hoisting themselves up from their miserable trenches, walking hesitantly toward each other with upraised hands, and engaging with the enemy. They exchanged small gifts. They played a game of soccer. They bonded with each other instead of trying to blow each other up.
More than anything, they sang. Music is the universal language, after all.
Peter Rothstein’s brisk, documentary-style piece of theater cements together short bits of dialogue, all taken from letters and accounts of men on both sides of battle, with the popular and traditional songs of the era. Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach’s musical arrangements recast the music into a tonal and rhythmic style suitable for an a capella men’s choir. The result is lush harmonies and an often mournful, stirring panoply of male voices.
After that first vivid encounter with the soldiers at the opening of the show, led by a sterling-voiced Hunter Oehlschlaeger singing “Will Ye go to Flanders,” we scoot back to England for the start of the war. Songs such as Irving Berlin’s “Come On and Join” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” set the buoyant tone. The high point of a war, it seems, is always the men marching off to it.
Then reality sets in: The rain. The rot. The trenches. The stench of death. The awful way that one tiny mistake – a soldier forgetting for a moment where he is and standing tall in a trench – can result in instant death. The song “I Want to Go Home” says it all.
Yet when Christmas comes, something remarkable happens. To me, the most moving moment in “All Is Calm” is when the show truly lives up to its title: the silence. As the truce takes hold, the soldiers slowly approach each other, hands raised, without uttering a sound. I could feel that silence envelop the audience, seep into us, infuse us with hope. After many minutes of rousing human vocals, we witnessed rousing human stillness. It was quite profound.
Many of the solo voices are stunning. Bryan Carlson is stirring in “Silent Night.” Daniel Sutherland and Darren Tharp resonate with deep, lower tones. Brandon Roberts, whose high tenor is key in the ensemble numbers, soars in “O Holy Night.”
The acting is piercingly good as well. Building a character in just a few sentences is no easy feat, but most of the snippets of real people come across as sturdy and true. In the most tender bit of melancholy, Randy Kohlruss brings a Scottish flair. Eric Estep blusters as a high-ranking officer. Peter Allwine captures the touch of the common man.
As stage director, Madison Alley deftly moves the large ensemble around the small stage with a smooth, crisp sense of purpose. Aldape’s projections are sparingly used but highly effective. Ginger Lewis Reed’s costumes, in black, are a strong mix of fabrics and textures, all suggesting the cold and wet of the front.
Through it all is a sense of rebelling against the status quo, of fighting back against the elite, of bending the rules of the way war “should be.” When you really think about it, the Christmas Truce is the stuff of which court martials are made. The play espouses a truly radical idea: Stand up and say enough is enough.
But using the past as a kind of salve, “All is Calm” skirts any type of real-world issues of military propriety. It is astutely non-political. It’s perfectly safe to perform within the walls of a veterans building. It is, essentially, a fantasy. And a beautiful one at that.
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Perhaps it all goes down easier because of the songs, presented nearly back-to-back, which gives the short, intermissionless production a sense of constantly moving forward. I can’t say enough about the power of the voices (the show’s sound design is superb) and the plaintive feelings they evoke.
Humans are capable of so much, including fierce contradictions. We fight each other with a desperation and cruelty so resourceful it can be astonishing. Yet we write glorious music that represents the highest reaches of the soul. Could “Silent Night” come from a race of total monsters? Thankfully, no. Because of “All is Calm,” the most elevated aspects of humanity triumph in battle. Now just comes the harder part: winning the war.
Beautiful review, Donald. Such an incredibly moving show.
Thank you for a touching review that masterfully captures the essence of this wonderful production.
Your review is spot on. Roger did a fabulous job as vocal director.
I really didn’t know what to expect but it was a absolutely fabulous play such talent on and off stage was amazing. Thank you for a wonderful evening of entertainment!!
Looking forward to the next play!!!!
This review matches the quality and power of the performance itself. I was afraid I lacked the eloquence to describe “All is Calm.” Don’t need it. I’ll just tell folks to Google “Don Munro review of All is Calm. Great job.
A fantastic and heartfelt review.
I did what my good friend Tom Wright said to do. I Googled Don Munro. Spot on!