The Hello Girls

HSTC-The-Hello-Girls-Kaitlin-Nihill-Yalaria-Rogers-Rhianna-McCourt-Jessy-Heath-Petronella-Van-Tienen-photo-by-Jane-DuongIt’s refreshing to see a local company take on a relatively unknown musical then bat it out of the ball-park with a brilliant production that deserved a much wider audience than had the opportunity to see it during this pitifully short season.

Heart Strings Theatre Co. was founded by Canberra Actor/Director Ylaria Rogers with the ambition to create professional opportunities for artists in Canberra. Her inaugural Heart Strings production, Urinetown The Musical, was so successful during its Canberra season that it transferred to the Hayes Theatre in Sydney where it enjoyed a sell-out season.

Her choice of The Hello Girls for Heartstrings second production was a brave one. A contemporary chamber musical with an ensemble cast of five women and five men, the show is based on a true, but little-known story, of a group of women who volunteered to travel from America to France during the First World War, to serve in the U.S. Army as bilingual telephone operators, thus becoming America’s first women soldiers.

All the names of the characters in the musical are real, but only the stories of Grace Banker and General Pershing are entirely faithful to the known history; the others are composites of actual men and women who served in World War 1.

WAAPA graduate, Rhianna McCourt, performed the demanding role of Grace Banker, brilliantly capturing the steely strength that becomes apparent as her character grows into the role of leader and stopping the show with her thrilling rendition of the eleven-o’clock number, Twenty in which she lists all the reasons her team deserves to be recognised as members of the U.S. Army.

As Captain Joseph Riser, Grace’s superior officer and a stickler for rules and order whose scepticism of the women’s presence in the army is finally won over, Joel Hutchings impressed with his appealing combination of strength and vulnerability, particularly in his final solo, The Lost Battalion.

Yalaria Rogers as Grace’s tough-talking friend, Suzanne Prevot; Petronella Van Tienen as the small-town farm, Helen Hill;  Jessy Heath as Bertha Hunt, the older and wiser den mother, married to a Navy Officer; Kaitlin Nihill as the fearless, flirty Louise Lebreton; portrayed the members of Grace’s team, with distinctive easily recognisable characterisations.

Apart from Hutching as Captain Riser, each of the men portrayed a specific significant character as well as providing a choreographed ensemble of soldiers, doughboys, and various officers and interviewers as required.

Joel Horwood portrayed Private Matterson who worked closely with Riser as his assistant; David Hooley played the inflexible General Pershing, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces; Jerrod Smith played Signal Corps operator, Private Dempsey; and Kaya Byrne, fresh from the touring company of Come From Away, played Lieutenant Wessen, Head of the recruiting centre for the Signal Corps.

Rogers achieved a master-stroke by securing the services of director, Jason Langley, who delivered an imaginative, intelligent production which showcases the individual talents of this accomplished cast, within Monique Langford’s deceptively simple setting of metal radio masks and twisted telephone lines.

Antony Hately has taken advantage of the possibilities offered by the components of this setting to devise a colourful lighting plot, which together with Amy Orman’s inventive choreography, create a succession of eye-pleasing stage pictures.

Peter Mills’s tuneful score, superbly interpreted by Alexander Unikowski’s polished five-member on-stage band, is awash with catchy melodies and lovely harmonies. Each of the actors is given opportunity to shine, supported by the rest of the ensemble.

A fastidious sound design by Kyle Sheedy ensures that every word of the informative lyrics are clearly heard, even as the cast are busily moving props and furniture around the stage in response to Langley’s inventive staging.

The result is an outstanding production of a warm-hearted and informative musical with an important story to tell. It was performed and staged with a professional sheen which should ensure that it will emulate Heart Strings inaugural production and be seen in theatres beyond Canberra.

The Hello Girls
Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 9 September 2023
Season: 7 – 9 September 2023

Image: Kaitlin Nihill, Yalaria Rogers, Rhianna McCourt, Jessy Heath and Petronella Van Tienen in The Hello Girls – photo by Jane Duong

Review: Bill Stephens OAM