If you don’t know the names Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, you should. This team has managed to create one of the most intelligent, musically superb, well-directed musicals with the groundbreaking The Hello Girls, now playing at 59E59 Theaters. The Prospect Theater Company has outdone themselves with this production and if some smart producer does not move this show, it will be a crime!
Based on a true story of how America’s first women soldiers helped win World War I. In 1918, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent 223 women to France. They were masters of the latest technology: the telephone switchboard, as well as spoke perfect French. General John Pershing (Scott Wakefield), commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, demanded female “wire experts” when he discovered that inexperienced doughboys were unable to keep him connected with troops under fire. Without communications for even an hour, the army would collapse.
Scott Wakefield, Ellie Fishman photo by Richard Termine
Early in 1918, it was advertised nationally that bilingual female volunteers were needed for the war effort. By spring, more than 7,000 women had applied. Officially termed Signal Service Operators but christened the “Hello Girls” by the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper, they received pay comparable to their male enlisted counterparts but were required to pay between $300 and $500 to provide their own uniforms.
We follow Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman), chief of the first female telephone operator’s unit, her best friend Suzanne Prevot (Skyler Volpe), Franco-American Louise LeBreton (Cathryn Wake), Bertha Hunt (Lili Thomas), whose husband is fighting in the war, and Idaho farm girl Helen Hill (Chanel Karimkhani). They are under the command of Lt. Joseph Riser (Arlo Hill), who is none too thrilled about leading a company of ladies.
Cara Reichel has co-written the book and directed this piece with a flourish. All but one of her cast is the orchestra and unlike the John Doyle musicals where the underscoring is completely deleted, here these musicians are just as adept at playing, acting, singing and dancing. Reichel has used the instruments and the piano benches in such creative ways that the show seems seamless. More importantly, the script is not dumbed down, they trust we want to know this history and add moments that we have to think deeply. At one point, a German prisoner (Andrew Mayer) states that “governments want us fighting wars” and explains that what information comes to us may not exactly be the truth. It is haunting and relevant.
Peter Mills co-wrote the book and the music and lyrics are all his. I have been a fan of Mills since The Flood and in The Hello Girls, he has grown, blossomed and turned out a show filled with memorable songs, lush underscoring and rich orchestrations. “Answer the Call”, “We Aren’t in the Army”, “Je m’en Fiche”, “Twenty,” and the rousing anthem “Making History” will make you beg for the CD, so you can listen over and over again.
The cast is a phenomenon. Ellie Fishman is a star with her amazing belt. She makes us care about her and the situation she cares so deeply for. Skyler Volpe (guitar), Cathryn Wake (clarinet), Lili Thomas (piano and brass), and Chanel Karimkhani (cello) are extraordinary. We care about each one and by the end feel as if we know them all. Arlo Hill (percussion) sings a winning “Riser’s Reprimand”. Andrew Myer plays a haunting violin, Matthew McGloin a very Parisian accordion, Scott Wakefield bass, and musical director Ben Moss piano.
I loved Lianne Arnold’s multitiered set and projections of 1918. Whitney Locher’s costumes re-created the uniforms and helmets of the era. Kevin Heard’s sound design put us under fire, and Isabella Byrd’s lighting set the mood. I felt like I had been set back in time.
The Hello Girls, in the end, had to fight for their right for Veterans benefits. It took until 1972 to win. Even now, to pass the Equal Rights Amendment we only need one more state. It’s time we made history.
The Hello Girls is a show not to miss.
The Hello Girls: The Prospect Theater Company, 59E59 Theaters until Dec 22nd.