On one Christmas Eve, war was replaced by warmth
STONEHAM — War is hell, but World War I was a special kind of hell.
When war broke out in 2014, young soldiers gladly volunteered themselves to enter the fray, enthusiastically marching off to a war they expected would end in time for Christmas.
Instead, it became what author H.G. Welles first coined “The War to end All Wars.” The opposing forces dug into their trenches on the Western Front as heavy rains eventually turned the trenches into rat-ridden hellholes. In all, six million people died in the course of the conflict.
But for once brief shining moment on Christmas Eve 2014, peace and goodwill replaced bullets and shrapnel.
Out of the violence came a silence, then a song. A German soldier stepped into No Man’s Land singing “Stille Nacht.”
That began an extraordinary night of camaraderie, music, peace, a remarkable true story, here told in the words and songs of the men who lived it.
The event is celebrated in “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” the Greater Boston Stage Company production live onstage through Dec. 23, or, if you wish, streaming from Dec. 9 to Dec. 23.
Director Ilyse Robbins has assembled a sturdy ensemble cast of 10 diverse actors with glorious voices to tell – a cappella style — the story of the soldiers who laid down arms for a few hours, traded gifts and cigarettes, sipped rum, played a football (soccer) game, serenaded each other, and recognized their fallen brethren, before retreating to their respective bunkers.
There are moments of musical magic that alone are worth the price of admission. Michael Jennings Mahoney as a young Scottish soldier will send a chill up your spine with his soaring tenor solo in the heartbreaking Scottish traditional song “Will ye go to Flanders?” Thankfully, the song is also reprised.
It refers to Belgium’s Flanders Field. From 1914 to 1918, Flanders Fields was a major battle theatre on the Western Front. A million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action there. Belgium was the site of much of the killing in World War I and where some of the infamous trenches still exist.
Members of the ensemble will portray various English and German soldiers and deliver their recollections of the war and that special night.
For the record and because indeed, they are all indispensable during the 70-minute production, the artists include not only the aforementioned Mahoney, but also Christopher Chew. his son Caleb Chew, who serves as musical captain, sort of a human “pitch pipe” to begin a song in the absence of a conductor; Alexander Holden; David Jiles Jr., whose portrayal of an imperious general is a standout; Stephen Markarian; Zachary McConnell; Bryan Miner; Gary Thomas Ng; and Brad Peloquin.
They portray not only English troops drawn from every corner of the United Kingdom, proud to sing “God Save The King,” but their German counterparts.
Music director Matthew Stern is usually providing accompaniment for local musicals, but here he taught the music to the cast and oversaw the gorgeous vocal arrangements of Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, the lush harmonies and melding of the voices.
Kudos also to sound designer Dewey Dellay for making sure the voices were balanced and distributed evenly throughout the theater.
The music is a combination of period songs often sung by soldiers of the day, such as the unofficial anthem of the war, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” to traditional Christmas music.
The ceasefire of Christmas 1914 was never repeated. The introduction of poison gas by the Germans in April 2015 against French troops brought the horrors of war to a level probably not repeated until the atomic bombs were dropped at the end of World War II.
Greater Boston Stage, Artistic Director Weylin Symes and acclaimed Director Ilyse Robbins have given us a new and different theatrical way to recognize the magic the holiday season can weave, and “All is Calm” is certain to weave its magic with you.
The Greater Boston Stage Company production of “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 2014.” Book by Peter Rothstein. Vocal arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Directed by Ilyse Robbins. Music direction by Matthew Stern.Sound design by Dewey Dellay. Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg. At the Greater Boston Stage Company through Dec. 23; streaming from Dec. 9 to Dec. 23. greaterbostonstage.org.