Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Hello Girls


How grateful I am that a knowledgeable friend urged me to see this thoroughly satisfying chamber musical now at 59E59 Theater A. I had never heard of Prospect Theater Company and knew nothing about the historical footnote on which the show is based, i.e. the experience of American women recruited by the U.S. Army to serve as telephone operators in France in World War I, so I had not planned to see it. To miss it would have been a great shame. The show has been crafted with unusual skill. The music by Peter Mills is varied and often catchy, his lyrics are intelligent and the songs are well-integrated into the ambitious book by Mills and Cara Reichel. The attractive young cast of ten is simply amazing. They not only sing, dance and act; they play instruments (with one exception) and speak French. The story, based on actual people, focuses on Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman), a skilled Bell Telephone operator who is persuaded by her adventurous friend Suzanne (Skyler Volpe, guitar) to apply for the job. As the most experienced of the lot, she is chosen to head the unit, which includes Bertha (Lili Thomas, brass & piano), a married woman who doesn’t want to stay home while her husband is fighting overseas; Louise (Cathryn Wake, clarinet), a saucy French immigrant who wants to help her native country; and Helen (Chanel Karimkhani, cello), a sensitive young girl from a large Iowa farm family. Grace’s nemesis is Lt. Riser (Arlo Hill, percussion), who has been assigned oversight of the unit against his will and has no sympathy for the operation. Private Matterson (Matthew McGloin, accordion & piano) is a flirty soldier attached to the unit. We also meet General Pershing (Scott Wakefield, bass), who values the unit’s work. Andrew Mayer and Ben Moss portray various soldiers and play a mean piano. There is also an offstage percussionist, Elena Bonomo. The energetic choreography by Christine O’Grady makes effective use of a small space. The multilevel wood set design by Lianne Arnold has a lot of pegboard panels, some used for projections. The period costumes, mostly uniforms, by Whitney Locher are evocative. The fluid direction by Prospect’s producing artistic director Cara Reichel is a great asset. On the 100th anniversary of the armistice, it seems fitting to give these trailblazing women the recognition they deserve but were denied until 1977. My only criticism is that there is perhaps too much of a good thing. Trimming it by ten or fifteen minutes might be an improvement. There is so much to admire here that I hope some clever producer finds an off-Broadway house for the show after it closes December 22.  Running time: two hours 25 minutes, including intermission.

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