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A wrinkle in wartime as ‘All is Calm’ rings in Christmas

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Out of the mist they come.

They come to remind us, and they come to warn us. Pay heed, these voices say.

On this 100th anniversary of the end of “the Great War,” and just in time for our season of reflection and giving, a spirited display of civilization’s fragility arrives at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street.

“All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” has toured the USA for 10 years, and appeared in more than 50 cities. It is easy to see why. This crowd-pleaser celebrates a miraculous moment.

The war is a stalemate. The men are stuck for Christmas in the mud of the trenches. A troop of British soldiers hears a song rising from the wastes of No Man’s Land, the barbed-wire killing ground between the two fronts.

A German soldier is out there, alone, singing “Stille Nacht.” The English join in, and for a brief time, the slaughter and the madness end, in brotherhood.

The cast of 10 men, all in superb voice, sings a cappella, in powerful renditions of carols, marches, trench songs and cross-cultural hymns. The repertoire treks from the anticipation of rapid conquest to the disillusionment of the war’s exacting toll.

Bridging the songs, single characters provide context for the 68 million who served in this first outbreak of mechanized mass warfare.

These messages from the front, which end with the soldiers identifying themselves by name and unit, offer a stark counterpoint to the radiant choral harmonies.

The ensemble is in command throughout, in both song and spoken word.

Some passages draw from the war’s famed literary soldiers, but most are observations from the average infantryman’s diary.

This documentary touch amplifies the ethereal quality of this lovely production, so that this window into history puts us all in the lingering company of souls.

And like this unofficial cease-fire, “All is Calm” manages to keep the horrors of World War I at a certain distance. It takes us to a higher ground, and this haunting is all the more powerful because we understand what was and what might have been. The soldiers see the discovery for us. They make their brief peace, and wonder if such a bold act might spread, on both sides of the long, brutal lines.

The author/director, Peter Rothstein, wisely chooses not to dwell on the war’s gruesome details. He focuses instead on found joy. A few brief mentions of the hardships and statistics (as well as 9 million combatants killed) are enough to set the tone, and the designs (Trevor Bowen on costumes and Marcus Dillard on lighting) back up this understated approach.

The vocal arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach ground this rich and powerful choral experience. The music is all in the voices, and the voices from the stage carry us across the darkness to the fog of a war from long ago.

This is an historical moment worth remembering, and the inspiring “All is Calm” ensures that it is a moment you will never forget.

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