It’s 2022 and, while it seems like not much has changed, we are bursting with optimism for the coming year. It’s been a while since we’ve talked about one of our favorite live performance venues, The Phoenix Theatre Company, but first we’re going to start off with a little story.
During World War I, as American soldiers were deployed overseas, there emerged a need for experienced telephone operators to fill vacated positions on mainland U.S. bases. There were lots of female candidates, but women were not permitted to be in the Army, except as nurses. It took a good deal of convincing before the military would hire women “of mature age and high moral character” to fill those roles.
Over in France, where many troops were deployed, General John J. Pershing felt the frustration of not having enough bilingual operators. Communications among the Allies suffered greatly. For Pershing, the solution was simple. Send an urgent request for qualified female operators (nicknamed “hello girls”) to be deployed to France. In March of 1918, the first group of American female operators were sent overseas to aid the war effort. The rest, as they say, is history — albeit a less talked about piece of history…until “The Hello Girls”!
The Phoenix Theatre Company performance of The Hello Girls runs from January 5th through January 30th. This stage production chronicles the true story of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit during World War I and the challenges faced by women who were more than capable of performing the needed jobs but who were excluded by military policy and U.S. cultural norms.
The Hello Girls blends historically accurate accounts with a compelling story of friendship, trust, and courage. Rosemarie Chandler plays a feisty but disciplined Grace Banker, who was the real life supervisor of a group of stateside bilingual civilian telephone switchboard operators deployed to France to serve under General Pershing. In Chandler, Grace Banker is a tiny dynamo of a woman with a sharp mind and a determined disposition. Her crew of five represents a microcosm of early 20th century American women. Each is based on an actual member of the original team.
Gabrielle Smith plays Banker’s best friend and advisor, Suzanne Prevot. Bonnie Beus Romney is Bertha Hunt, a level-headed and practical married woman. Wet-behind-the-ears and dirt-poor rural transplant, Helen Hill is played by Michelle Chin. And finally, Carmiña Garey portrays French-born immigrant, Louise LeBreton, whose animosity toward the Germans began long before the U.S. involvement in the war.
Chandler lifts the heavy weight of the show, as the central character whose efforts are the chief reasons for the group’s success. As Suzanne Prevot, Smith’s powerful voice and her commitment to her portrayal serve as the catalyst for the hard decisions that Grace Banker has to make. Romney, Chin, and Garey provide so much additional dimension to the group, and are representative of the larger population of operators that actually numbered over 200.
A supporting cast portraying military personnel and French villagers help weave a subtext of impending danger, gender inequality, and general tension between career soldiers and newly recruited specialists who just happen to be women. Some standout performances by Alex Crossland, Keiji Ishiguri and Scott Wakefield provide the needed emotional dynamics and comic relief in a situation where steely nerves and unwavering discipline are the norms and expectations.
Interestingly, The Phoenix Theatre Company dispenses with its usual excellent off-stage bands and orchestras. Nearly all of the musical accompaniment of The Hello Girls is provided by the performers themselves, yet in a way that does not distract from or break character within the narrative story. A wide range of instruments are used over and above the standard piano, bass and drum. String, woodwind, and brass all have their places in the sparse arrangement, well suited to the war torn environment of the Souilly, France front lines, where ominous quiet is broken by the rumble of approaching aircraft or the blare of warning sirens.
The Hello Girls invites you to step back in time to witness a significant moment in history. These brave young women chose to fight for their country even before they were given the right to vote. It wouldn’t be the first time this had happened. But it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote. Four years later, Native Americans were given the same right.
The Phoenix Theatre Company has an impeccable track record of professional productions, Broadway-caliber acting, creative set design and flawless live musical accompaniment. This production of The Hello Girls stays true to that tradition.