In World War I women were recruited into the U.S. Army as telephone operators and eventually sent to the front in France. But after the war they were not considered regular army veterans, and it took many years of fighting to get the pensions and recognition that they deserved. “The Hello Girls,” directed by Cara Reichel from the show’s book that she wrote with Peter Mills, who did the music and lyrics, is a delightful tribute to the real-life women, with pictures of some of them projected at the end of the show. As the program notes, while the characters are inspired by actual women and men, creative liberties have been taken.
What’s special about this production is that most of the cast members, in addition to providing affecting acting, play an assortment of musical instruments (music direction is by Ben Moss), and director Reich and choreographer Christine O’Grady keep the performers moving swiftly about the stage as the story unfolds.
There are men as well as women in the cast, but there is no forced romantic story, even though there is a possibility of one. The book sticks mainly to the subject, with the women eventually in combat zones despite initial objections. General John J. Pershing, played with amusing authority by Scott Wakefield, settles the matter, adding a funny double-entendre bit in which he says he has to get back to the base. But the base in this case must be spelled “bass,” the instrument he plays in the background when not emerging as the general in the foreground.
The musical numbers are catchy, and the lyrics are bright and intelligent, carrying forward the story of the women moving their way up and providing heroic service by keeping the phone communication lines open during battles.
Arlo Hill plays the male lead, Lt. Joseph W. Riser, who supervises Grace and retreats to the background on percussion when he is not trying to keep her out of the trench warfare zones. The other men, in addition to Wakefield as Pershing, who play the various soldiers include Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin and musical director Moss.
The stage set, designed by Lianne Arnold, also the projections designer, consists largely of various-sized platforms plus a background that suggests a huge switchboard and is enhanced by projections that give the production scope.
For those who want to know more, the saga of the women is detailed in print in the book “The Hello Girls” by Elizabeth Cobbs. As for the current musical, the story comes to light via winning performances and admirable creativity in the meshing of acting and musicianship, all so appealingly staged in this Prospect Theater Company presentation. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed December 3, 2018.