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‘All Is Calm’: beautiful singing, strong emotion, and humanity

ALSO: Dan Buettner of ‘Blue Zones’ at Talk of the Stacks; cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason at Schubert Club; and more.

The cast of Theater Latté Da’s production of "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914."
The cast of Theater Latté Da’s production of "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914."
Photo by Dan Norman

What surprised us most about Theater Latté Da’s “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” was its simplicity and spareness. The stage is almost bare except for gray-painted wood crates and platforms. There’s theatrical haze, and the occasional projection at the back. No bombs burst, no shots ring out. It’s entirely a cappella singing and speaking until the end, when a lone bugle sounds.

Yet for 65 minutes, “All Is Calm,” now at the Ritz Theater through Dec. 29, holds your whole attention. Last Friday’s sold-out house was still as stones. No coughing, no between-songs applause. It seemed the whole audience held its breath from the start, when the cast of 10 emerged singing from the darkness through the haze. On the way out, we heard one word over and over: “Incredible.”

In 32 songs and many spoken passages, “All Is Calm” tells a remarkable true story: of the call to enlist in a war everyone thought would be over by Christmas, young men who signed up and were sent to the Western front, life in the trenches, hardships endured, comrades killed. And an unprecedented impromptu Christmas Eve cease-fire between Allied and German forces that took place in No Man’s Land, where the men sang Christmas carols and shook hands and exchanged gifts and addresses before returning to battle.

The songs are traditional: “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “God Save the King,” “O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree,” “Stille Nacht/Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “Auld Lang Syne.” Some are war songs set to familiar tunes: “When This Bloody War Is Over,” sung to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” “Raining, Raining, Raining,” set to “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Songs are sung in English, French, Flemish and German.

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The spoken words are taken from soldiers’ letters and journals, poems of the time, war documents and gravestones. Most often, a spoken passage ends with a soldier giving his name and affiliation: “Private Frank Sumpter, London Rifle Brigade.” “Hugo Klemm, 133rd Saxon infantry.” You wonder – did he survive? What about him? “Oh, my,” one sings. “I don’t want to die … I want to go home.”

The show was created by Peter Rothstein, Latté Da’s founding artistic director, over years of research. The exquisite musical and vocal arrangements are by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, both formerly of the men’s a cappella group Cantus, where Lichte was a founding member and artistic director. It had its world premiere in December 2007 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, from where it was broadcast nationally over MPR, then moved in 2008 to the Pantages and became an annual holiday tradition. Cantus performed in the production through 2014.

Directed by Rothstein, “All Is Calm” has toured the United States and been broadcast on five continents. Last year, it ran for a few nights at the Ritz before going to New York City for an off-Broadway production that won a New York Drama Desk Award. Next week, it will be filmed for national broadcast over PBS in 2020.

In the years “All Is Calm” played the Pantages, we never managed to catch it. We all get busy during the holidays. We make choices about how we’re going to spend our time and our entertainment dollars. Do we want a night out of pure enjoyment? Do we want to laugh and clap and feel light on our feet as we head out the door into the snow? Or do we want to be moved, to think and feel and reflect? Cantus must have asked themselves those questions in 2007, when this was their Christmas show.

For your holiday fare, we might suggest a Christmas blend. Something sweet and/or funny, and also something poignant and pointed. “All Is Calm” is a visceral experience. It aims straight for the heart, and its aim is true. It’s filled with beautiful singing, strong emotion, and humanity. We wished, and not for the first time (or the last), that Latté Da had left the theater lights low a bit longer, to give us a chance to collect ourselves. It’s a powerful production. We’re very glad we (finally!) saw it.

It’s interesting that two important works for theater about the Christmas Truce of 2014 were both born here in Minneapolis. The opera “Silent Night” was commissioned by Minnesota Opera as part of its New Works Initiative, premiered here in 2011, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012. “Silent Night” has also been seen on PBS.

“All Is Calm” continues at the Ritz Theater through Dec. 29. FMI and tickets (start at $33).

The picks

Now at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory.” The legendary Spanish filmmaker, director and screenwriter (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her”) returns with a story about a filmmaker in his physical decline, no longer able to continue his life’s work. The cast includes Antonio Banderas, a veteran of several films with the director, and Almodóvar’s longtime muse, Penélope Cruz. The house where Banderas’ character lives is Almodóvar’s house in real life. FMI and tickets.

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Tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec. 4) at the Minneapolis Central Library: Talk of the Stacks: Dan Buettner. The New York Times best-selling author of “The Blue Zones,” Minnesota’s Dan Buettner will release his latest, “The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100,” today (Tuesday, Dec. 3). So this Talk of the Stacks event will be a perfect time to pick up a copy and have it signed. Doors at 6:15, program at 7. Seating is limited. Overflow space with live feed will be available.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Photo by Jake Turney
Sheku Kanneh-Mason will be here with his sister, Isata, who recently released her debut album on Decca.
Thursday and Friday at the Ordway Concert Hall: Schubert Club International Artist Series: Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Isata Kanneh-Mason. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, a big deal in Britain but not well known here. Then he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and became a sensation. The Schubert Club’s Barry Kempton knew about the young phenom before the royal wedding and nabbed him for his 2019-20 International Artist Season. Sheku will be here with his sister, Isata, who recently released her debut album on Decca. Wild but true: All seven of the Kanneh-Mason siblings are musicians, playing violin, piano or cello. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 10:30 a.m. Friday. FMI and tickets ($28-75).

Saturday at SooVAC: Opening reception for “Let There Be Spaces in Your Togetherness.” Continuing its 20th anniversary celebration, Mizna, the St. Paul-based Arab arts organization, has joined with SooVAC for a juried group show. Participating local and national artists are from the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) region or of SWANA descent. Following its stay at SooVAC, the exhibition will tour to St. Cloud State University and New York Mills Cultural Center. 6-9 pm. FMI. Free. Closes Jan. 9. Meanwhile, another Mizna-related exhibition, “History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary” continues at the M through Jan. 5. FMI.

Holiday pick

Courtesy of Cantus
If you want to see Cantus live, performing their own “Christmas With Cantus” show, you’ll have several chances to do that starting Thursday, Dec. 12.
If you want to hear Cantus sing “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” the original cast recording is available. If you want to see them live, performing their own “Christmas With Cantus” show, you’ll have several chances to do that starting Thursday, Dec. 12. The acclaimed men’s a cappella vocal ensemble has expanded its holiday program to nine Greater Twin Cities venues, so whether you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul, Fridley or Apple Valley, Stillwater or Wayzata, you won’t have to go far to hear their signature mix of superb singing, joy, nostalgia and newness. This year’s program is all about storytelling. FMI and tickets (prices vary by venue).