Theater Latte Da’s “All is Calm” is a Soulful History Lesson that Rejoices in our Shared Humanity. Not to Be Missed!

Photo by Dan Norman

My first Experience with All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, came in late 2019 when my wife and I were in the audience while they filmed the production to air on PBS. That experience though filled with starts and stops as multiple takes were done of various scenes still gave us a taste of something wonderful. Last year we watched the full uninterrupted production on PBS. This year We sat second row, dead center, and were enveloped in the beauty of this magnificent work. If you’ve only seen All is Calm on PBS you are only getting a fraction of its power. For a little over an hour, ten men sang songs that were over 100 years old, sometimes in languages I do not speak, and I was under their spell completely.

All is Calm tells the story of the spontaneous truce that occured on Christmas day 1914 in the Trenches of the western front during World War I. The play opens in complete darkness, then a voice cuts through the silence singing acapella “Will Ye Go to Flanders?”. A shiver runs up your spine. Slowly lights come up as one lone man emerges from the darkness and takes center stage. Then slowly as if out of the past the others appear. Throughout the show the performers stand in for the real men who fought that hellish war. They will read dialogue that is taken from actual letters, journals, official war documents, and even poetry among various other sources. It is through these spoken snippets and the songs that are sung that we follow the pulse of those early days of the first world war. The first songs and dialogue are about the thrill of joining up, doing your part for King and country. But then the grim reality of war sets in and the tone changes. We get a sense of what living and fighting in the trenches was like day after day. Then Christmas comes and with it the truce and we experience through the eyes of these men the universal truth that we are all the same underneath. What a beautiful reminder at this time of year and in this world we live in. And as always happens, Christmas ends, and so does the truce. The soldiers who were exchanging gifts, taking photographs together and playing football in no man’s land, go back to fighting for another three years.

All is Calm was created and directed by Peter Rothstein who is also the Founding Artistic Director of Theater Latte Da. The musical arrangements are by the Music Director Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. The marvel of the show is the way the songs weave together and the layering of the harmonies. Sitting in the theater listening to these ten voices working in unison without the aid of musical instruments, just their voices creating some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard. Flowing from one song into another, sometimes in concert with each other and then having a performer step forward and become a young Scottish soldier or a gruff German Sergeant. Adding a human voice to the chorus of angels, giving us the context within the emotion. It is an accomplishment that will surely rank among their greatest creative achievements. Completing what is about as near as you can get to a perfect production is the work of Lighting Designer Marcus Dilliard. The key to the look of this production is simplicity, it is a black wardrobe, black backdrop and the lighting sells the mood, the setting. It’s subtle in its perfection, it’s the slight lowering or raising of the light to just exactly the right level. It looks simple because it feels meant to be. The Costumes by Designer Trevor Bowen also simple, but undeniably right. Everything about All is Calm, even the backdrop which is mostly black, but at times shows clouds, mist, a moon and stars, is simple, but perfect. It all comes together to create an experience so beautiful, so engrossing, that you don’t want it to be over. In fact, if there is one complaint it’s that the show isn’t longer.

To say that the cast is full of terrific singers is to undersell them. these are not great singers they are vocal Gods. From the first song which seems to transport you to the Scottish highlands from your seat in north Minneapolis. These voices envelope you and carry you along to war. Normally I would single out my favorite performers but that is impossible, they are to a man, brilliant. There were several new faces in the cast from the ones I had seen during the filming and on PBS. And one member of the cast that was there before and was in the program but wasn’t on stage was James Ramlet, Counting the cast member from this program and the program I have from 2019 I suspect that Ramlet and another performer must alternate. I may have to try and see it again before it closes to compare. Honestly, it’s the sort of show you wish you could have a season pass to, so you could just drop in any night and let the music wash over you.

All Is Calm runs through Jan 2nd 2022 at The Ritz Theater in North Minneapolis. This is the best Musical theatrical Christmas show you are going to find this year or any. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.latteda.org/

Theater Latté Da presents Bernarda Alba

Photo by Dan Norman

Theater Latté Da’s production of Bernarda Alba is an Aesthetic triumph. Scenic Design, Costuming, Sound Design and lighting are is such accordance that the sense of oppression becomes a character itself. I would be highly surprised if these elements were not in the conversation for the best of 2020 next January. Aided by a top notch cast, Bernarda Alba almost transcends the tragedy and gloom of its story. Theater fans are going to find a lot to admire in the production, there are very few things that don’t work perfectly. This is a great company doing great work in service of a truly downbeat story. I don’t mean to discourage you from attending, not all shows or even musicals have to be upbeat. I think it is important to understand going in that you are going to get very little light at the end of the tunnel. For some people that is not how they want to spend their time out, but I think for most knowing that going in you can appreciate the work on it’s own terms.

The Words and Music are by Michael John LaChiusa based on the play The House of Bernarda Alba by Frederico Garcia Lorca. The story revolves around Bernarda Alba played by Regina Marie Williams, the newly widowed Mother of 5 daughters. Bernarda rules her daughters and her house with an iron fist. The daughters are like prisoners in the estate, they all long to be free and to marry. The main plot incident is the engagement of the oldest daughter Angustias played by Kate Beahen, the one child by Bernarda’s first marriage, to Pepe, a local suiter. The engagement causes conflict between the daughters, particularly when it becomes obvious that Pepe is in love with another daughter Adela, played by Stephanie Bertumen. He is only marrying Angustias because she has a dowery from her late father, as the father of the other girls was not wealthy. This is the primary conflict and it doesn’t change throughout the play. There is little in the way of new information fed to the audience, more like a confirmation of what we’d already assumed. The story seems underwritten in general, we get mood instead of conflict. I’m not sure this needed to be adapted into a musical. There are some good songs, and of course all of the music is performed and sung beautifully. There is one odd element of the songs, a technique at the end of certain lines to screech out the last word. I’m not familiar with this technique and hope I never become to. Thankfully, it is sparingly used as it just seems odd and unnecessary. This seems like a show that treads water for a significant portion of Act 2. and the songs only add to the feeling of padding. It helps that the show runs only about 90 minutes, but there is no intermission, and I think that might be one of the few missteps. A break might have lessened the feel that we seem to be living with the same information without really any new developments for too long.

As I said, the the material is lacking but the production itself is flawless. The entire cast is good, a few standouts for me were; Meghan Kreidler as Martirio, supposedly the ugly sister, perhaps some make up to at least try and get that across visually would have helped. Kreidler is such an intelligent and striking performer, that it’s hard to remember she’s supposed to be ugly and thus unlikely to ever marry. She has the largest emotional swings of the daughters and sells every new emotion or thought completely. Regina Marie Williams commands the stage as completely as her character does the household when she speaks, characters and audience alike take notice. Aimee K. Bryant as Poncia the housekeeper, with the wisdom of an outsider on the inside, shines as a character who in so many different things, making those transitions seamlessly, from protector, to voice of reason, to underling. Finally, Kim Kivens as Maria Josepha, Bernarda’s aged mother who is kept locked away most of the time. Her appearances make clear the motivations of Bernarda, which are all about appearances. She is a tragic character, who has obviously began to fall into dementia. Kivens brings an air of innocence to her her ramblings that we see her as really another daughter being locked away by an overbearing mother.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Scenic design by Kate Sutton-Johnson is another of Theater Latté Da’s brilliant sets. Large wooden beams dominate the ceiling making the set feel like a fortress, keeping the world out and the family in. The Lighting Design by Mary Shabatura does as much as the set, performers and music in creating the atmosphere of grief, oppression and tragedy. It is masterful in directing our eyes and manipulating our mood as we watch. Alice Fredrickson’s costumes are another homerun, of particular note was a white dress Bernarda wears in a number. It begins as a normal dress and unfolds into to parachute size that spins around her as she rotates within. The sea of white fabric all of a sudden after so much black and darkness is one of the most breathtaking moments in the show. The music Direction by Jason Hansen and the Sound Design by Kevin Springer round out the exemplary technical team, that creates a production that is soaked in atmosphere.

Bernarda Alba runs through February 16th at the Ritz Theater in North East Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to http://www.latteda.org/

Chicago at Theater Latte Da in Northeast Minneapolis

My first experience with Theater Latte Da was last fall’s production of Once. I was impressed with the little theater, the space was perfect in that there could be a decent sized audience but even the seats at the back were decent, which is where we were for the first half of last season’s shows. My greatest theater experience, not just there but probably ever, was their production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I saw once from the third row and twice more from the first. This is a theater that puts on productions that rival The Guthrie, in terms of talent on and off stage. Theater Latte Da houses itself at the Ritz Theater, situated in a Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, with a lot to offer in terms of before and after show dining and drinks. Just down the street is a great place for Fish and Chips The Anchor, or if pizza is more to your liking, we tried Young Joni just a few blocks away and rated the Cauliflower appetizer on a scale of 1 to 10 a solid I want to eat this everyday.

We enjoyed the front rows so much for Hedwig that we decided for Chicago to go one step further and sit on the stage. This is not a new idea, I sat on the stage a few years back at The Jungle Theater when they put on Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is a fun way to make the live theater going experience even more immersive. There are twenty seats on the stage, they are general admission, so if you were lucky enough to get one, do yourself a favor and come early, first in gets first choice. The set is designed like a speak easy and you are sitting at the bar which becomes the stage, with space for your drink, much like a strip club. And that is not where the comparisons end. The performers are performing right in front of you, as well as behind you, and also directly too you. They are also frequently wearing very little and what they are wearing is designed to titillate. I found myself unsure where to look at times. Do you make eye contact, do you allow yourself to look at the legs and other things that clearly you are supposed to be admiring. When you do catch yourself admiring something other than the lively faces of the performers, you immediately become aware that the rest of the audience, those not seated on the stage, can see you. And you also realize, they can tell where you are looking. These are not the seats for introverts.

Chicago is a show I am only familiar with from the film adaptation, and of course a couple of the songs which have seeped into the cultural consciousness such as And All That Jazz. I liked the film, but had heard from others that the show could be a little harder to like, filled as it is with mostly despicable characters. This productions largerly overcomes it’s lack of likable characters with a wealth of likable performances. Rather than play up the seedy side of the characters, they play those aspects with a nudge and a wink and that allows us to enjoy their amorality rather than be appaled by it. The show plays like a series of vaudville routines like those it’s style was based on. By not playing it as rea,l it lets us off the hook, we are allowed to be entertained. Once you relieve the show of it’s immorality and all that jazz, it becomes fun. Instead of being appalling, the characters are playing appalling. That allows for more humor than I anticipated.

The story focuses on Roxie Hart played flirtingly, at least with me, by Britta Ollmann who shone last season as the girl in Once. Roxie opens the play by killing a man for trying to break off an affair with her. The show follows her through her time in Mama Morton’s women’s prison with her fellow inmates, all seemingly trying to win their trials and launch careers as celebrities. She hires the slickest defense attorney in Chicago to get her off, Billy Flynn. Billy Flynn is played like a vaudeville barker or a game show host by Robert O. Berdahl. Roxie and Billy manipulate everyone from the press to Roxie’s sad sack husband Amos Hart to get what they want . Somehow the show manages to jettison our judgement about the characters while still leaving our hearts intact so they can be broken by Reed Sigmund’s portrayal of Amos Hart. True, this character as written is halfway to breaking your heart straight out of the gate. But that shouldn’t diminish the work of an actor who is able to capitalize so completely on that characters arc. When Sigmunds’ Amos leaves the story for the last time the audience audibly pitied him. The other standouts in a uniformly good cast are Regina Marie Williams as Mama Morton and Michelle De Joya as Velma Kelly.

One change I would encourage the director of the show, Peter Rothstein, to consider before the show exits the preview stage is the curtain call. It maybe the stage, it maybe that there are audience members onstage, but for some reason the curtain call was not designed to allow the audience to fully show the actors and musicians the appreciation they wanted too. All of the featured actors deserved a bow of their own. The performers did a fantastic job, give us the opportunity to show them how much we appreciated their work.