The Hello Girls
By Nancy Salz – November, 2018
There’s a new kind of triple threat in the American theatre: Performers who can sing, act, and play the hell out of a musical instrument – not just accompany themselves as in some of John Doyle’s recent productions. There are many of these triple threats in the Prospect Theater Company’s new musical, The Hello Girls, and they will both knock your socks and charm your pants off. So dress accordingly.
As a rule, I dislike shows in which the orchestra is also the cast. But performers like Cathryn Wake, who could hold her own in any jazz band, plays a mean clarinet and won me over. So did Lili Thomas whose trumpet playing was nearly as good. Chanel Karimkhani straps her cello to her body and even plays well as she moves around the stage. (She does look a bit silly – musically pregnant? – but one gets used to it.) Skyler Volpe, who won the Berkshire Theatre Critics award for her singing, dancing and acting as Anita in the Barrington Stage Company’s West Side Story, also plays the guitar admirably. She’s a quadruple threat!
The Hello Girls was inspired by the French-speaking American women, former Bell Telephone operators, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War I. They had to fight to serve. They had to fight to be assigned to the front lines. And after the war they had to fight a sixty-year battle to be recognized as real Army veterans, not contract workers as they were originally called. Their deep commitment to and excitement about their Army assignments draw us into plot and keeps us in its grasp. This is a deeply emotional story, filled with energy, gumption and high spirits.
Ellie Fishman was spectacular as Grace Banker, the group’s superior “officer.” Her voice is big and beautiful. From the get-go she seduces you into the story. The women mentioned above also sang wonderfully. Only Arlo Hill, as Lieutenant Riser, who was commander to the girls, seemed to strain to hit his notes. (He has impressive credits so perhaps he was ill the evening I saw the show.) Scott Wakefield as General John Pershing, Ben Moss and Andrew Mayer were also excellent.
The show’s nineteen songs are high-spirited and tuneful. Most are up-tempo. They were written by Cole Porter Award-winner Peter Mills. None were particularly memorable but they worked to move the plot forward or define character. Mills and Cara Reichel collaborated on the involving book. Reichel and choreographer Christine O’Grady moved the actors around the small, multi-level stage ingeniously.
Particularly impressive is the scenic design by Lianne Arnold. She devised places along peg-board-lined walls and the tops of platforms where the performers could rest their instruments when they weren’t being played. Props – such as helmets and telephone headsets – also hung on the boards. The peg boards closely resemble old-fashioned telephone boards into which operators used to plug wires to connect callers and receivers. Those boards formed a theme for the scenery. Arnold also designed the projections. Kevin Heard’s sound design was most helpful in immersing us into a war zone.
At one point late in The Hello Girls a character mentioned that one of more the girls could die at the front. I was so attached to the five principal girls at this point that I nearly cried at the thought of losing them.
The Hello Girls has so much going for it and at a top price of just $75.55. I thoroughly enjoyed myself from beginning to end. The show runs through December 22nd.
Music and Lyrics by Peter Mills; Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel; Directed by Cara Reichel; Choreographed by Christine O’Grady; Music Directed by Ben Moss; Scenic and Projections byLianne Arnold; Costume Design by Whitney Locher; Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd; Sound Design by Kevin Heard; Orchestrations by Peter Mills and Ben Moss; Music Consultant, Madeline Smith; Percussionist, Elena Bonomo.