In 1917, General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces stationed in France, had discovered that his male operators did not know French and that they were not as fast as their female counterparts and so he requested bilingual women for his Signal Corps. We follow Grace (played by Ellie Fishman, the only performer not to play an instrument) from her job as chief operator at Bell Telephone offices in New York City where she spars with her boss the traffic supervisor over the glass ceiling for women, to her applying to be a telephone operator for the AEF on their way to France.
We witness the interviews of Grace (who had been a French major at college) and four other women candidates (Suzanne Prevot, Grace’s best friend and a telephone operator from AT&T; Helen Hill, an inexperienced Idaho farm girl; Bertha Hunt, a 33-year-old woman married to a Navy Doctor who is already serving overseas; and Louise LeBreton, an underage French woman living in the U.S. for three years). When Grace’s French is discovered to be weak she fears she will be rejected. However, her reference from her boss at Bell Telephone speaks well for her and she is made Chief of the First Unit. They are immediately dubbed “The Hello Girls,” a nickname which sticks.
We follow their training under Lt. (later Capt.) Joseph Riser (Arlo Hill), the no-nonsense Signal Corps officer who disapproves of women in the military and keeps them from being sent to the front lines where they are most needed. We are told that 33 women will be sent over in the first group; ultimately there were 223 women who went over to Europe to join the Signal Corps. After their arrival in Paris, they are sent to AEF headquarters in Chaumont where it takes a little while to adjust to army life, but their skills are immediately put to good use. When the war heats up and headquarters moves to the front lines, the women put up a fight to get sent to follow them. After the armistice, we follow their ultimately 60-year fight against the glass ceiling to be given status as veterans of the army, rather than as civilian contractors with no official rank.
One of the beauties of the book by Mills and Reichel is that all of the characters in the large dramatis personae are very well defined and we have no trouble knowing who is who. Reichel’s direction and staging make the characterizations clear and consistent. Fishman’s Grace is efficient, fair-minded and heroic, always coming up with good ideas to make sure that things run more smoothly and we root for her throughout the story. As the assured, ambitious Suzanne, Skyler Volpe is very feisty, witty and acerbic, in the manner of an Eve Arden role.
Chanel Karimkhani’s Helen, the farm girl, is constantly getting into trouble, not least of which is her problem being late most of the time and her naïveté and lack of sophistication. As the oldest operator and a married woman, Lili Thomas’ Bertha is a rock of stability when others are falling apart. Cathryn Wake’s very French Louise is a firecracker, always speaking her mind – even if it gets her into trouble. Christine O’Grady’s choreography for the dance hall scenes for the women and the doughboys is redolent of ballroom dances of the period. The show’s one flaw is that there is not enough tension until almost the very end when the war comes a little too close for comfort.
Hill’s Lt. Riser is rather humorless where a more snappy approach would have been more interesting. On the other hand, Matthew McGloin as Pvt. Matterson is quite diverting as he verbally jousts with Volpe’s snappish Susanne Prevot and he gives as good as he gets without being out of bounds. Scott Wakefield (also on bass) makes General John. J. Pershing a wry presence in his few appearances. Andrew Mayer (violin and piano) and Ben Moss (piano) give able support in a series of smaller roles. Though not one of the actors, Elena Bonomo on percussion makes her helpful presence noticeable.
Mills’ score (music and lyrics) is very agreeable with its mix of ragtime, jazz, pop, marches and Broadway, with clever lyrics which forward the plot. The rousing company anthems like “Answer the Call,” “See You on the Other Side,” “Hello Girls,” “Lives on the Line” and “Making History” are the standouts, but several of the solos make a strong impression. Hills makes the most of “Riser’s Reprimand,” while Fishman scorches with her “Twenty” reasons why the women should be sent to the front lines. There are even two entertaining songs half in French, half in English: “Je M’en Fiche” (“I Don’t Care”) sung by the telephone operators and the doughboys and “Quinze Minutes” (“Fifteen Minutes”) sung by all of the women. Both Mills and music director Moss are credited with the fine orchestrations which often suggest a marching band as well as French music hall with their occasional use of accordion and guitar.
Lianne Arnold’s unit set with its many platforms and wood panels that suggest a plug board works fine for the entire production. Unfortunately, her documentary footage shown over the giant plug board on the upper portion of the stage is very difficult to see over all of the holes. The costumes by Whitney Locher bring us back to the W.W. I era with their high necklines and low skirts. Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Kevin Heard’s sound are subtly used during the show.
The Hello Girls is an historical musical which tells a little known story in a dramatic and compelling manner. Peter Mills’ score is tuneful without breaking with its 1917-18 time period. Cara Reichel’s expert direction and a talented cast bring the many colorful characters to life. Prospect Theater Company’s production of The Hello Girls deserves a longer life than this limited engagement Off Broadway run.
The Hello Girls (through December 22, 2018)
Prospect Theater Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission