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Laying down arms, lifting voices in song in ‘All Is Calm’

The cast of "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham.
The cast of "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham.Nile Scott Studios

“All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” is not your typical holiday show, says Ilyse Robbins, director of the documentary musical at Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company set during World War I.

Using holiday carols, patriotic songs, letters, and diary entries from German and British soldiers, “All Is Calm” recounts a spontaneous Christmas Eve truce on a French battlefield that began when one German soldier started singing “Silent Night.” What followed was an unexpected halt to hostilities, a lot of singing of Christmas carols, a soccer game, and an exchange of gifts in No Man’s Land before commanding officers ordered the troops back to their trenches.

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“It was early in the war, before atrocities had happened,” says Robbins. “British and German soldiers had no reason to hate each other yet. Many had signed on to what they thought was an adventure that would be over by Christmas.”

Originally conceived as a radio play by Peter Rothstein, “All Is Calm” relies on the rich harmonies of an all-male cast. “What makes this piece particularly affecting is that all the music is performed a cappella,” Robbins says.

The script allows for flexibility in the cast size to tell the stories of 39 different men, but Robbins said it is often staged with nine singers and three actors. “We capped the cast at 10,” she says, “but I chose singers who are also actors.”

One of the anchors of the cast is Christopher Chew, a local musical theater favorite, who is performing with his son, Caleb Chew, 23.

“This is the first time we’ve performed together on the stage in Stoneham,” says Caleb, “but I grew up seeing my father perform in holiday shows here.”

While Caleb, a bass, has experience with the kind of choral singing “All Is Calm” requires, his father, a tenor, says this wouldn’t be his first choice for a role. “What makes this show different is that I need to play a commanding officer, and make the choices for that character, and then switch to become an everyman in the trenches,” says Christopher. “Sometimes those shifts happen midway through a song.”

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“In this show,” says Caleb, “we are creating a rich world of clearly defined characters. We meet, learn about, feel joy and sorrow for all in the course of these snippets and songs.”

Robbins says musical director Matt Stern found teaching some of the songs extremely challenging since the performers are singing in different languages, off-tempo and weaving complicated harmonies together.

She says her own background as a choreographer helped her visualize the way these men move in and out of the moments that make up the period of the truce.

“It’s quite moving to hear the men’s names spoken, to see them as distinct and unique,” she says. “It’s a responsibility and honor to remember these veterans.”

Working with his son, Christopher Chew says, has created some “really powerful moments for me. As a mature actor onstage, it’s been an extra delight to let my son [who also serves as the music captain, providing the vocal cues] take the lead.”

Robbins, too, says she was drawn to the story in some ways because her son, Bennett Mohr, a Macalester College undergraduate, has researched World War I. Mohr agreed to do some dramaturgical work to help her and the company understand the milieu in which the story takes place.

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“Bennett’s insight helped us focus on these individuals who are telling the story,” Robbins says. “This may take place in the midst of a war, but there are no guns, no explosions; the cacophony of war is all communicated through their voices.”

Ultimately, Robbins says, this is a play about peace.

“We’ve been so divided,” she says, “and I think this show reminds us that even in the darkest situations, it only takes one person to bring out the best in us.”

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914

Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham. Nov. 26-Dec. 23. Tickets $57-$67. 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org