Saturday, September 9, 2023



Kaitlin Nihill as Louise, Rhianna McCourt as Grace Ylaria Rogers as Suzanne

Jessy Heath as Bertha. Petronella Van Tienen as Helen in
Heart Strings Theatre's The Hello Girls

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. Choreography by Amy Orman. Set design by Monique Langford. Costume Design by Sarah Hordern. Costumier Helen Wojtas. Lighting Design Antony Hateley. Sound Design Kyle Sheedy. Stage Management Brittany Myers. Musicians  Alexannder Unikowski (Keyboard, Guitar, Trumpet, Trombone, Clarinet), Jeff Yoon (Keyboard), Enola Jefferis (Cello)., Mel Fung (Bass) and Brandon Reed (Drums).Produced by Ylaria Rogers for Heartstrings Theatre. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. September 7-9 2023. Bookings: 62752700 or

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


The cast and musicians of The Hello Girls

Heartstrings Theatre has scored a stunning success with its production of Peter Mills’ and Cara Reichel’s musical about the Hello Girls. If this production were in Sydney or Melbourne it could run for months. In Canberra it has a limited three day season, but deserves so much more. It is refreshing to witness a musical with such power and professionalism that tells the largely unknown story of the women who served the war effort as telephone switchboard operators at the Front during the First World War and helped the allies attain victory. Hello Girls follows the lives of Chief Operator Grace Banker (Rhianna McCourt) and four of her operators, Suzanne Prevot (Ylaria Rogers), Helen Hill (Petronella Van Tienen),Bertha Hunt (Jessy Heath) and Louise Le Breton (Kaitlin Nihill). It is a time when women were expected to stay in the home and do domestic duties.  They were ineligible to vote until US Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Grace Banker (1892 – 1960) and the thirty three women who served under her faced misogyny, chauvinism and prejudice during their struggles for acceptance and recognition for the invaluable service they provided. Banker constantly faced resistance from her officer in charge, Captain Riser (Joel Hutchings) and General Pershing (David Hooley). The girls are confronted by mockery and ridicule from officers while on a train in a deliciously ironic scene that captures the childishness of the men. Director Jason Langley and choreographer,  Amy Orman have skilfully turned the mockery in on male inanity and sexist  attitude leaving no doubt at the ridiculous behaviour by the officers. Langley’s incisive direction finely tunes the line between hilarious comedy and tense drama.  During a moving encounter with the girls, German prisoner of war, Wessen (Kaya Byrne) offers an insight into the humanity that exists in all people, ally and foe alike.  Riser also expresses the difference between unreasonable men and reasonable women to Banker. Barbaric war is the act of men, not women.

Grace Banker at the switchboard with officers
 Langley has revisited his direction of the earlier VCA production for Heartstrings Theatre and the largely Canberra company has answered the call to present an astounding performance on the Canberra Playhouse stage. Not only do the Hello Girls shine but the male actors play a variety of characters with superb adroitness and with excellent support also from Jerrod Smith as Dempsey and Joel Horwood as Matterson. Hutchings plays the single role of Riser and Kristy Griffin joins the ensemble as Swing. From the very start after Rogers’ heartfelt acknowledgement of Country, the opening number galvanizes with its energy and directness. I had goosebumps. McCourt is magnificent as Banker with all the promise of a rising star on the Australian Music Theatre stage. She is brilliantly supported by the other actresses. 

Joel Hutchings as Captain Riser and Rhianna McCourt as Grace
The production soars as a triumph of talent and ensemble performance. Under Alex Unikowski’s musical direction, singers and musicians  excel with a range of numbers from Folk to Pop and touches of Ragtime and Jazz to capture the era. Anthony Hateley’s lighting design and Kyle Sheedy’s sound design make an impact on Monique Langford’s set design of scaffold towers with interconnecting wires.  Director, Langley  uses staging and effects  to the full in a production that is visual and visceral. You laugh, you cry and you are amazed by the courage of the soldiers and the women who served and the magnificence of the production.  There is only one way to respond to the final reprise of Answer the call. In Louise Le Breton’s words C’est magnifique!

Ylaria Rogers as Suzanne. Joel Horwood as Matterson
As a post script the actors reveal that Grace Banker never lived to personally receive the Congressional Medal. Nor did many of the women under her charge. Mills and Reichel have paid tribute to their service in a production that does Heartstrings Theatre proud. Like the company’s previous success, Urinetown, I hope that  Heartstring Theatre’s Hello Girls goes on to enormous acclaim. Producer Ylaria Rogers deserves nothing less than Hello Girls’ resounding success.

Photos by Jane Duong