Associate New York Critic
There is no doubt that the so called “Hello Girls,” the bilingual operators that were sent to the front line to operate secured switchboards, were invaluable to the Signal Corps units in World War I. It is unfortunate that they needed to fight for sixty years to be recognized as veterans of that war in order to receive appropriate benefits. It was just one more example of the historic and ongoing women’s crusade for equal rights. So, it is fitting that there be an acknowledgement of their service in any form, including the documentary and the current stage musical by the same name now running at 59E59 Theaters. This recent tribute is produced by Prospect Theater Company and features a remarkable cast of performers who do triple duty as actors, vocalists and musicians playing multiple instruments.
If their story is unfamiliar, they are a group of American Bell telephone operators, fluent in French, who were recruited to serve overseas, finding themselves at A.E.F. Headquarters on in Chaumont, France and ultimately on the front line as the war ended. Their story is one of struggle at every turn, to prove themselves equally qualified, if not superior to the men serving in the same capacity and to adapt themselves to the hardships and cruelty of war. Comradery, bravery, loyalty and resilience would describe their characters, but determination and patriotism provided their strength. In no uncertain terms they were an integral part of conquering the enemy.
Lt. Joseph W. Riser (a domineering Arlo Hill) is Captain of the unit and conveys the understated message of malaise and resentment with subtle charm. Mr. Hill’s powerful vocals reflect his character’s variety of intellectual sentiment. Grace Banker (an efficient and intuitive Ellie Fishman) is Chief Operator who bathes her persona with tenacity and commitment. Ms. Fishman infuses her role with strong vocals that always discover the evolving emotion obscured by the action. Lili Thomas creates a no-nonsense Bertha Hunt, the only married woman in the unit. Ms. Thomas competently covers Brass and Piano when necessary. A plain and solid Helen Hill is portrayed by Chanel Karimkhani with honesty, as she handles her cello with ease. Louise LeBreton is the spirit of the troupe, always inventing a reason to party and played with a devilish charm by Cathryn Wake, who intermittently wails on the clarinet. Skyler Volpe plays a fearless Suzanne Prevot with a zeal for adventure. Ms. Volpe lends her guitar to the musical arrangements as well. The remainder of the skilled actors and musicians in the supporting cast are proficient in all their duties.
This is an enjoyable evening of significant theater shedding some light on the history of World War I. It is difficult to create any tension or element of surprise which affects the dramatic arc since so much of what happens is predictable especially in the first act. If the women were not recruited and were not a notable contribution to winning the war what would be the point? Considering that analogy, the play is too long at nearly two hours and thirty-five minutes, with most of the unnecessary content contained in Act I. Hopefully the creative team will continue to hone the piece to produce a more concentrated story eliminating any irrelevant or repetitious material. It is still worth a visit to see this current production performed by an extremely talented cast.
THE HELLO GIRLS
The cast features Ellie Fishman, Arlo Hill, Chanel Karimkhani, Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin, Ben Moss, Lili Thomas, Skyler Volpe, Cathryn Wake, and Scott Wakefield. Elena Bonomo is percussionist.
The design team includes Lianne Arnold (scenic and projection design); Isabella Byrd (lighting design); Whitney Locher (costume design); and Kevin Heard (sound design). Madeline Smith is the music consultant. The Production Stage Manager is Emily Ballou.
“The Hello Girls” runs at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues) through Saturday December 22, 2018. The single ticket price is $25.00 - $70.00 ($25.00 - $49.00 for 59E59 Members). Tickets are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or by visiting www.59e59.org. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
Photo: Lili Thomas, Skyler Volpe, Chanel Karimkhani, Ellie Fishman and Cathryn Wake in Prospect Theater Company’s “The Hello Girls.” Credit: Richard Termine.