Theater review by Raven Snook
Move over, Mean Girls and Wicked: There's a new musical exploding with grrrl power, female camaraderie and uplifting songs, and it teaches an essential piece of history to boot. Prospect Theater Company's stirring The Hello Girls is based on the real-life saga of the U.S. Army's first women soldiers, who served as bilingual switchboard operators in France on the front lines of World War I. Although their crack communication skills helped win the war, they were denied veteran status when they got home—sparking a 60-year fight to earn recognition.
Ten quadruple-threat performers play all the parts and most of the instruments. The fabulous Ellie Fishman portrays the no-nonsense leader of a group that also includes feisty Cathryn Wake, wisecracking Skyler Volpe, naïve farm girl Chanel Karimkhani and Army wife Lili Thomas (all elevating their respective archetypes). Together they wage a battle against sexism in order to best serve their country, crossing bayonets especially often with their supervisor (Arlo Hill, who manages to be sympathetic despite the chauvinism built into his role).
Created by the prolific husband-and-wife team of Peter Mills (songs and book) and Cara Reichel (book and zippy direction), The Hello Girls has a didactic undercurrent, and at times it tries too hard to draw parallels to today—especially in a prologue that asks audiences to imagine "a world where freedom is under assault, a world drifting toward tyranny." (We get it!) But this modern-day framing makes the anachronism of Mills's score, which includes soaring pop-theatre ballads as well as jazz and ragtime-inflected tunes, feel appropriate: As suggested by the show's Hamiltonian subtitle, A New American Musical, this century-old story is being told through a contemporary lens.
Although the horrors of war are acknowledged—sound designer Kevin Heard conjures ear-shattering shelling, and there's a poignant scene with a German POW—they are rarely dwelled on. Musical instruments stand in for weapons, and the evocative images that Lianne Arnold projects on her multilevel pegboard set are never graphic. The Hello Girls is painted in broad, sometimes sentimental strokes, but it is undeniably inspirational. When the cynic in you has an urge to roll your eyes, you may find them filled with tears.
59E59 Theaters (Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by Peter Mills. Book by Mills and Cara Reichel. Directed by Reichel. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.