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A CurtainUp Review
The Hello Girls
By Elyse Sommer
The sad news— which really isn't news— is that the war they helped win was by no means the war to end all wars. General Pershing wisely countered the "stodgy status quo" attitude of his officers about letting these skilled women do their jobs at the front. But, while the "hello girls" did get to go to the front of World War I's final battle, "stodgy status quo" resistance to other equality for women issues didn't end with the signing of the Armistice. Neither did those communications experts in uniform receive official veterans' status without a fight that lasted sixty years.
But here's the good news, which is very good news indeed: Prospect Theater Company founders Peter Mills and Carla Reichel have turned the story of these forerunners to glass ceiling busters everywhere into a musically rich, beautifully staged and vibrantly performed musical called — what else?— The Hello Girls.
The Hello Girls now having its world premiere at their latest home, 59E59 Theaters is more sophisticated than any of this company's previous shows. Fortnately, it hasn't lost the "little engine that could" simplicity and charm I've come to associate with a Prospect show featuring music and lyrics by Mills, direction by Reichel, and a book by both.
As always Reichel has assembled a terrific cast to deliver vivid performances. To represent the title, the show's book focuses on five "hello girls." (Thousands actually applied, 450 were trained and 233 served abroad). Following the quintet's enlistment and tour of duty takes us to New York City, Paris, and the Headquarters of the war's crucial Chaumont offensive. Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman) is superb as their feisty leader. Suzanne Prevot (Skyler Volpe), is also very fine as Grace's tough-talking friend and AT&T co-worker. Rounding out this groundbreaking little bend are a Idaho farm girl Helen Hill(Chanel Karimkhani), Bertha Hunt (Lili Thomas), the oldest and only married one, and Louise Lebreton (Catherine Wake). the French-born youngest.
The five male characters include Captain Joseph Riser (an impressive Arlo Hill), the Signal Corps officer who recruits and trains the women, and the less frequently on but equally important General Pershing (Scott Wakefield). The three other male cast members (Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin Ben Moss)ably handle a variety of characters.
Actually, this is a show in which everyone except the dynamic Ellie Fishman multi-tasks — not just acting and singing, but playing at least one instrument. Even Scott Wakefield's Pershing takes turns as big bass player and Arolo Hill's Riser as percussionist.
This set-up of having the cast double as the show's orchestra (2 pianos, percussions, guitar, violin, cello, clarinet,accordion, percussion section) is similar to but different from John Doyle's similar approach for Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd & Company. Doyle was working with primarily well-inown actors and singers who happened to also play a instrument well enough to get by with this format. The cast members of The Hello Girls, are not big name stars but they are gifted instrumentalists as well as fine actors and singers. The two pianos are used to especially impressive effect.
The story telling and Lianne Arnold's tri-level all-purpose scenery call for a lot more nimble shifts between spoken and sung scenes and instrument playing. All this is deftly accomplished and greatly enriched by Arnold's always apt projections. The other designers and choreographer Christine O'Grady further enhance the pleasures of this thematically relevant big little musical.
While the performers are amplified, it's with tiny head mikes. This avoids the over-miked sound of most big Broadway musicals and allows the audience to hear the witty lyrics and the singers to do justice to the beautiful music. Though Mills is a composer whose music does fall within the modern spectrum, it is nevertheless insistently and ear pleasingly melodic.
The nineteen melodies Mills has written for The hello Girls give everyone a chance to shine. That includes two splendidly sung solos for Arlo Hill's no-nonsense Captain Riser and a particularly amusing duet, "Switchboard Lessons" when Skyler Volpe's Suzanne is assigned to train a wounded soldier (Matthew McGloin's Private Matterson) to operate a switchboard. The best numbers feature the female ensemble and the whole company, but individual singers get to stand out within these multi-cast songs.
The just about perfect first act ends with a rousing company number "Lives on the Line" ("And after all the training/after all the planning and complaining/all the small decisions, preparations and provisions/ after all of that we suddenly recall/this is war after all/ there are lives on the line"). The second act does have some problems, mainly the insertion of a scene and character that distract from the tone of the overall story. That's a scene between the "hello girls" and a German prisoner that comes off like a sudden attempt to pay tribute to Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel All Quiet On the Western Front.. Though the soldier does make an important point the scene adds a discordant note and temporarily makes our heroines somewhat unsympathetic. This being a long show, this scene wouldn't be missed if deleted. While the penultimate scene in which Pershing awards the Distinguished Service Medal to Grace does belong, it might work better as part of the epilogue about the women's long post-war battle for official recognition as part of the army.
But enough quibbling. The Hello Girls is a first-class entertainment with strengths that far exceed any shortcomings. If the show gets another and longer life, as it should, Reichel and Mills could easily fix some of the current second act problems, as they did when The Pursuit of Persephone had its second life, renamed The Underclassman. Don't wait for that to happen, however, but catch it during its all too brief run at 59E59 Theaters.
Postscript: For more about these early high tech women's place in the history of world War I and the battle for women's rights, "The Helllo Girls, America's First Women Soldiers" by historian Elizabeth Cobbs is highly recommended. There's also Girls on the Line, a novel by Aimie K. Runyan. And, since nurses were at the frontlines even before the "hello girls" you might also want to check out Jaqueline Winspear's series of novels about Maisie Dobbs, a British World War I nurse who didn't wait for the women's liberation movement to become a successful psychologist-crime investigator.
| Links to Previous Prospect Shows Reviewed at Curtainup.
The Pursuit of Persephone
Death For 5 Voices
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The Hello Girls
Music and lyrics by Peter Mills
Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
Directed by Cara Reichel
Choreography by Christine O'Grady
Cast: Ellie Fishman (Grace Banker), Arlo Hill (Lt. Joseph W. Riser / Percussion), Chanel Karimkhani (Helen Hill / Cello), Andrew Mayer (Pvt. Dempsey & Others/Violin & Piano), Matthew McGloin (Pvt. Matterson & Others / Accordion & Piano), Ben Moss (Lt. Wessen & Others/Piano), Lili Thomas (Bertha Hunt / Brass & Piano), Skyler Volpe (Suzanne Prevot / Guitar), Cathryn Wake (Louise LeBreton / Clarinet), Scott Wakefield (Gen. John J. Pershing / Bass).
Scenic and Projections Design by Lianne Arnold
Costume Design by Whitney Locher
Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd
Sound Design by Kevin Heard
Orchestrations by Peter Mills and Ben Moss
Production Stage Managerz: Emily Paige Ballou
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Prospect Theater Company Theater A of 59E59 comples 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org
From 11/13/18; opening 12/02/18; closing 12/22/18. Cast: Ellie Fishman (Grace Banker), Arlo Hill (Lt. Joseph W. Riser / Percussion), Chanel Karimkhani (Helen Hill / Cello), Andrew Mayer (Pvt. Dempsey & Others/Violin & Piano), Matthew McGloin (Pvt. Matterson & Others / Accordion & Piano), Ben Moss (Lt. Wessen & Others/Piano), Lili Thomas (Bertha Hunt / Brass & Piano), Skyler Volpe (Suzanne Prevot / Guitar), Cathryn Wake (Louise LeBreton / Clarinet), Scott Wakefield (Gen. John J. Pershing / Bass).
C Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/28/18 press preview
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