Thursday, September 14, 2023

THE HELLO GIRLS - Heart Strings Theatre


Kaitlin Nihill  - Yalaria Rogers - Rhianna McCourt  - Jessy Heath  - Petronella Van Tienen
in "The Hello Girls"

Music and Lyrics by Peter Mills – Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel

Directed by Jason Langley – Musical Direction by Alexander Unikowski

Choreographed by Amy Orman – Set Design by Monique Langford

Costume Design by Sarah Hordern – Lighting Design by Antony Hately

Sound Design by Kyle Sheedy – Stage Management by Brittany Myers

Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse September 7 – 9th 2023.

Performance on 9th September reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

Yalaria Rogers (c) - (l - r) - Petronella Van Tienen -Kaitlin Nihill - Rhianna McCourt - Jessy Heath

It’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.

 Yalaria Rogers - Petronella Van Tienen - Kaya Byrne - David Hooley - Jerrod Smith - Joel Horwood                                Jessy Heath - Kaitlin Nihill in a moment during "The Hello Girls"

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.

Rhianna McCourt (c) with The Hello Girls.

As Cpt. 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. 

Grace (Rhianna McCourt) demonstrates her switch-board skills in a key moment during
 "The Hello Girls - (l-r) Kaya Byrne - David Hooley - Joel Hutchings -Jerrod Smith


Joel Horwood portrayed Pvt. 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, Pvt. Dempsey; and Kaya Byrne, fresh from the touring company of “Come From Away”, played Lt. Wessen, Head of the recruiting centre for the Signal Corps.  

Joel Hutchings (Cpt. Riser) - David Hooley (General Pershing) - Rhianna McCourt (Grace) in a tense moment during "The Hello Girls"

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.

                                                         Images by Jane Duong

  This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.