The Hello Girls – A New American Musical – Entertaining and Timely

Formed in 1917 by General John Pershing desperate to aid communication on the Western Front, the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, informally known as The Hello Girls, were switchboard operators sworn into the U.S. Army. Keep in mind, women didn’t even have the vote. Freedom under assault is here applied to more than wartime politics. Commanding officers were skeptical, soldiers commonly derogatory.

Those who manned 80 locations in France and England had to be fluent in English and French, smart enough to learn constantly changing codes, willing to live in Spartan environments adhering to stringent regulation, and often brave under fire. The corps was indisputably instrumental in winning WWI. To the country’s shame, it took 60 years before recruits were granted Veteran Status/Honorable discharges. Only two operators were still alive.

Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman) has been with Bell Telephone three years. She’s the best thing they’ve got, but will never advance due to gender. When her friend Suzanne (Skyler Volpe, also on guitar) excitedly calls to tell her about an Army classified advertising for several hundred bilingual operators to go to France, Grace protests her French isn’t that strong. Still, the opportunity for both travel and contribution is irresistible.

Ben Moss, Cathryn Wake, Scott Wakefield, Skyler Volpe, Ellie Fishman, Chanel Karimkhani, Lili Thomas

Among 5,000 applicants, 250 are chosen. We’ve been pressed and accessed/and we passed every test/But we’re not in the army yet, the exhausted women sing. Our sampling of five includes, besides Grace and Suzanne, innocent farm girl, Helen (Chanel Karimkhani – also on cello), taught French by her mother, the married, somewhat older, Bertha (Lili Thomas – also on brass and piano), who can’t sit home while her husband is somewhere overseas, and Louise LeBreton (Cathryn Wake, also on clarinet), a feisty French immigrant. A song about different personal motivations is spot on.

The Army overlooks Grace’s in fact, poor French, in favor of her experience as an operator and makes her head of core, a job she takes very seriously. Unfortunately, commanding officer Lt. Joseph W. Riser (Arlo Hill, also on percussion) is incredulous/openly doubtful. “My opinion doesn’t matter here, that’s the beauty of the army,” he, however, tells Grace when questioned. There are audience snickers.

Arlo Hill and Ellie Fishman

A ship takes them to Paris, then Chaumont, France. “See You On the Other Side” is stirring; “Hello Girls,” a music hall number. In the latter, choreography stops short of a kick line, favoring buoyant, but less production-oriented steps. “Quinze Minutes” (15 Minutes) is the time between bomb barrages. For the first time fear enters the story. Many songs, as well as dialogue, are peppered with French, which skillfully never feels unfitting. We hear character-based letters to parents and parts of army telephone calls.

By Act II, Grace is trying to convince superiors that only her girls can handle increasing demands at the front. We hear a few too many specifics about battles, but Riser’s attempt to make his Chief Operator realize the enormity of the situation – 1,200 wounded, 200 killed in the last, local battle, rings true. Isabella Byrd’s Lighting and Kevin Howard’s Sound Design create palpable danger.

Lili Thomas, Chanel Karimkhani, Cathryn Wake, Ellie Fishman, Ben Moss, Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin, Skyler Volpe, Arlo Hill

Despite gravitas and observed protocols, there are parentheses of much needed fun. These are girls in their twenties who need to bust out. Wisely none of this goes over the top. The five grow both close and adamant about participation. Much is required of them.

Grace’s “Twenty,” her “Rose’s Turn,” enumerates the reasons Riser should let them go. The scene ends with a demonstrative gesture as amusing as it is clever. It’s a crackerjack song, an anthem to women’s abilities and rights. (Her operators are moved to battle lines.) Though remaining conflicted and protective, the lieutenant slowly comes to appreciate his Hello Girls. And no, there’s no cliché romance, though if the piece is ever made into a Hollywood film (a good idea), I’m sure there will be.

Lili Thomas, Chanel Karimkhani, Cathryn Wake, Ellie Fishman, Ben Moss, Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin, Skyler Volpe, Arlo Hill

Peter Mills and Cara Reichel have illuminated a shadowy event in history at a time when women are again asserting themselves. The authors do this in true storytelling fashion without polemics so we sympathize with and care about protagonists.

Mills’ Music and Lyrics are varied, specific, and entertaining, deftly in service of both character and plot. Some lyrics are masterful.

Reichel’s Direction is lively, fluid, evocative of circumstance, and aesthetically pleasing. Emotions play across actors’ faces even when not in the spotlight. Pacing is excellent. Use of the staging area highly imaginative.

The company of multi-talented thespians is impressive. Musicianship is never sacrificed to acting nor vice versa. Voices are very fine with those of Ellie Fishman (clearly a leading lady) and Arlo Hill out front for clarity and feeling.

A terrific production of a really original musical. Prospect Theater Company is now on my radar. It should be on yours.

Also featuring: Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin, Ben Moss, and Scott Wakefield as Gen. John Pershing, all of whom double as musicians, and the excellent Elena Bonomo on Percussion

Lianne Arnold has done a splendid job with both the multi-platform Set which offers a wide variety of dramatically interesting arrangements and a giant switchboard of occasional lights and Projection Design which enhances but never intrudes. Costume Design by Whitney Locher appears with stealth, managing to be both accurate and flattering.

A call out to French Language Consultant Anicet Castel whose skill adds immeasurably and to Dialect Coach Kerry Candeloro whose accents are credible and subtle.

The musical is based on Elizabeth Cobb’s book The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, Harvard University Press. Both Chief Operator Grace Banker, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and Operator Louise were real people.

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Cathryn Wake, Skyler Volpe, Ellie Fishman, Chanel Karimkhani, Lili Thomas

Prospect Theater Company presents
The Hello Girls
Music & Lyrics=Peter Mills
Book- Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
Music Directed by Ben Moss
Orchestrations – Peter Mills and Ben Moss
Choreography- Christine O’Grady
Directed by Cara Reichel
Through December 22, 2018
59E59 Theaters   
59 East 59th Street

About Alix Cohen (508 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.