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The Hello Girls - Hayes Theatre (NSW)

Reviewed by Claira Prider

Hayes Theatre

Playing until February 4th 2024


More than a story about war, bravery, and friendship, it’s about a piece of female history that was completely erased by men.


The 'Hello Girls' is the nickname given to the American female switchboard operators who journeyed to France and worked through trying conditions of misogyny, sexism, and gunfire during the first World War. Based on Elizabeth Cobbs’ 2017 Novel The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, the musical (written and composed by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel) premiered on Broadway in 2018. More than a story about war, bravery, and friendship, it’s about a piece of female history that was completely erased by men. Referred to as ‘civilian contractors’, it wasn’t until 1977, almost sixty years later when the two hundred and twenty-three women were granted veteran status and benefits, and in 1979 the thirty-one surviving Hello Girls received their much-deserved WWI Victory Medals.


Telephones were still a new invention at the time and while they allowed multiple calls to take place concurrently as well as across long distances, they required manual operation. The army desperately needed bilingual French and English speaking, experienced telephone operators to join them on the front line in France, not only to operate the switchboard system, but also to translate communications. Despite knowing that women were faster and more efficient at the task, it took a great deal of convincing before the Army would hire women to fill the roles.


Photos by Phil Erbacher


Rhianna McCourt superbly leads the cast of ten in the role of Chief Operator Grace Banker. She commands the stage with an assertive and astute characterisation, giving a notable vocal performance throughout. Particularly spectacular is a scene where she demonstrates her multitasking telephonist efficiency, transferring calls at the speed of light while singing between French and English. Kaori Maeda-Judge gives a powerful performance as the level-headed Bertha, Nikola Gucciardo plays the naïve yet determined Helen, Kaitlin Nihill portrays French born Louise and Kira Leiva is very engaging as Suzanne. The quintet flex their ensemble brilliance in the song ‘Hello Girls’ with the most luscious, tight harmonies. Joel Hutchings gives a grounded performance as the stuffy Captain Joseph Riser, supported by David Hooley, Matthew Hearne, Zachary Aleksander and Lincoln Elliott portraying military personnel, a German prisoner of war and French villagers.

 

Monique Langford’s set design is relatively sparce, spotlighting four small desks on wheels with a lift up lid against a black backdrop and floor. There are black risers to create three different levels, backed by tall metal radio mast poles, wrapped with telephone wires. When raised to 90 degrees, the clear lids of the desks represent the switchboard with hundreds of small holes that the phone lines would be plugged into as well as pegs attached to cord.


Amy Orman’s choreography demonstrates a simple and effective representation of the troops at sea, dodging bullets and involves the switchboard desks in much of the movement, creating multi-layered, shape shifting sights as well as comedic dancing moments. Sarah Hordern’s costumes seem to cover multiple eras where initial costumes reflect current day fashions, the Army uniforms are reflective of the World War I era.


Tim Hope’s lighting casts hues of purple, white and green (suffragette colours) on the telephone wires working with sound designer Kyle Sheed to create a heart-stopping, ear-shattering gunfire scene. Led by Natalya Aynsley on keyboard, the five-piece band provide an exceptional accompaniment, I only wish they could have fitted on stage and not performed behind the curtain.


Directed by Jason Langley, this musically outstanding Heart Strings Theatre Co production invites you to step back in time as we follow the brave women who chose to fight for their country despite not yet being allowed to vote.

 

CREATIVES

Director Jason Langley

Musical Director Natalya Aynsley

Choreographer Amy Orman

Costume Designer Sarah Hordern

Costumier Helen Wojtas

Canberra Set Designer Monique Langford

Associate Set Designer Hailley Hunt

Lighting Designer Tim Hope

Stage Manager Brittany Myers

Deputy Stage Manager Alex Liang

Sound Designer Kyle Sheedy

Sound Operator Emma-Jade Dwyer

Cast Rhianna McCourt, Kira Leiva, Kaori Maeda-Judge, Nikola Gucciardo, Kaitlin Nihill, Alexis Van Maanen, Jessy Heath, Joel Hutchings, Matthew Hearne, David Hooley, Lincoln Elliot, Zachary Aleksander and James Frampton.


 

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