“We’ve been probed and disrobed by a team of physicians, but we aren’t in the Army yet,” sings a group of bilingual American women who are telephone operators and determined to use their skills in World War I. Yes, that happened. And yes, after the armistice, it took six decades for Uncle Sam to recognize the recruited women as soldiers.
The Hello Girls, a new musical at 59E59 Theaters, turns this obscure slice of history into something tuneful and stirring. Created by Peter Mills (music, lyrics, book) and Cara Reichel (book, direction), the story looks back 100 years, but its message of making connections – in every sense – and a difference is evergreen. The cast, doubling as musicians, John Doyle-style, makes that point in the opening number. “Imagine a time when the world was divided,” they sing. “Would you answer the call?”
In 1918, Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman), a French-speaking switchboard ace from New Jersey who watched inferior men in her company rise while she stalled, responded. So did her intrepid friend Suzanne (Skyler Volpe), married Bertha (Lili Thomas), French immigrant Louise (Cathryn Wake) and Iowa farm girl Helen (Chanel Karimkhani). Inspired by real people, characters have been altered in some cases for drama’s sake.
Staged on multilevel platforms and staircases, the action follows these five “hello girls” (there were more than 200) to Europe, where they face encouragement from Gen. Pershing (Scott Wakefield), resistance from their lieutenant (Arlo Hill) and varying degrees of camaraderie from other soldiers (Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin, Ben Moss). With its rich score, assured staging and polished performances, the show reaches out and touches upon heroism of everyday women.