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Review: ‘The Hello Girls’ Answered the Call in World War I

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

The predicament was dire. Otherwise, they never would have called in the women. Fighting in France in World War I, the United States Army was having trouble with the phones. With speed essential in the dispatch of information, calls weren’t getting through fast enough.

Phone calls back then were patched from one operator to the next, so it was a problem if the soldiers at the switchboards couldn’t speak French and communicate with the local operators. Worse, though, was the men’s clumsiness at a critical task that, in the civilian world, was largely women’s work.

Bowing to common sense in the interest of victory, Gen. John Pershing recruited women to the Signal Corps to do the job. At a time when women weren’t even trusted to vote, off they went to Europe, at last with a use for their ladylike fluency in French.

If you’re familiar with this obscure story, the subject of the new musical “The Hello Girls,” you probably also know its ugly epilogue: After the women shipped home, the military spent six decades denying them veterans benefits, insisting that they’d never served. By the time President Jimmy Carter made it right, most of the 223 operators had died.

As a chapter of history, it makes great drama, and for the first act “The Hello Girls,” at 59E59 Theaters, is a rather thrilling thing — smart, human and sardonically feminist, with a lively ragtime-and-jazz score by Peter Mills. As it draws us into the women’s experience, there is a palpable sense of filling in an important blank: showing an adventurous female presence in the war story we thought we knew.

Directed for Prospect Theater Company by Cara Reichel, who wrote the show’s book with Mr. Mills, it boasts an excellent cast of actor-musicians who have a multitasking ease as they play the instruments scattered around Lianne Arnold’s clever, giant-pegboard set. A handsomely designed production (projections by Ms. Arnold, costumes by Whitney Locher, lighting by Isabella Byrd), it also sounds terrific (music direction by Ben Moss, orchestrations by Mr. Mills and Mr. Moss, sound design by Kevin Heard).

“The Hello Girls” is history fictionalized, but its central character, Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman) — the chief operator of this Ladies Switchboard Unit — is largely faithful to the record, and her band of subordinates is a bit less random than the usual Army-story odd lot. Her comically acerbic friend Suzanne (Skyler Volpe) is one, an underage French immigrant (Cathryn Wake) another.

These are likable characters, and we root for them, especially when men like General Pershing (Scott Wakefield) and Grace’s superior, Lieutenant Riser (Arlo Hill), let their stubborn skepticism about women’s capabilities get in the way of tapping the best people for the trickiest jobs.

Yet the freshness that’s so appealing in Act 1 dissipates in the bloated second act, which succumbs to sentimentality and broad-stroke cliché.

A program note suggests Elizabeth Cobbs’s book “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers” for those who want to know more about the operators’ history.

But we learn enough from the musical, which briefly sketches the women’s disgraceful treatment after the war, that it can’t get away with selling us a generically upbeat ending. Why does it try?


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