Review: THE HELLO GIRLS at Phoenix Theatre Company

Michelle Chin, Rosemarie Chandler,
Gabrielle Smith, Bonnie Beus Romney,
and Carmiña Garey

Photo by Reg Madison Photography

Similar to recent films like Hidden Figures, which helped shed light on the virtually unknown stories of how women were involved in important historical events, the musical The Hello Girls introduces us to Grace Barker, the woman who led a group of skilled female switchboard operators serving in the U.S. Army in France during the final battles of World War I. It’s a superb new musical that focuses on this remarkable woman and the dozens of others who were some of the first to break the “glass ceiling” of serving in the Army, even though they barely got any recognition for their efforts. The Phoenix Theatre Company is presenting the regional premiere in a smashing production with a wonderful cast, rich creative elements, and excellent direction, resulting in a moving theatrical experience.

The story focuses on Barker and four of the women who worked for her. Their story is set in motion when General John J. Pershing issues a request for female switchboard operators who are fluent in both English and French to serve in the Army in order to more quickly field calls from the base in Chaumont, France. More than 5000 women applied and 223 served, managing millions of calls during their time. They were dubbed “the hello girls,” a reference to the way they answered the calls: “Hello, how may I connect your call?” Barker was chosen to head up this new division, which was overseen by Captain Riser, the somewhat misogynistic and “by the book” Army man who was assigned to interview and hire the group of women and who often doubted their abilities and didn’t think they should be as close as they were to the enemy lines. The struggle for Barker and the other “girls” to be seen as equals, and to prove they are just as loyal, smart, and patriotic as the men in the Army, is the main focus of the plot. There is also an epilogue that gives facts about the characters after the war and shows how it took years for the women to get the recognition they deserved.

The show premiered in 2018 at Prospect Theater Company, where founders Peter Mills and Cara Reichel were also the show’s creators, with both writing the show’s book, Mills writing the music and lyrics, and Reichel directing. The well-crafted book provides plenty of character development for Barker, the four other “girls,” Riser, and Pershing, and Mills’ score is rich and evocative with witty lyrics and wonderful rhymes in a range of musical styles. Reichel repeats directing duties for the Phoenix Theatre production with fluid movement and layered character portrayals from the wonderful cast.

Grace, played by Rosemarie Chandler, is a force of constant determination, although sometimes she finds herself doubting or second guessing her own abilities. Fortunately, her friend and former co-worker Suzanne is a sounding board and confidante, and Gabrielle Smith exhibits a beautiful amount of strength in that role. Michelle Chin is appropriately innocent and slightly confused as Helen, who hadn’t left her Idaho farm before joining the Army; Carmiña Garey is feisty and fun as the French-born Louise, the 18-year-old who lies about her age so she is able to join; and Bonnie Beus Romney is Bertha, the older, married member of the group who exhibits poise and grace under pressure even though her husband is off fighting the war.

While Riser is the antagonist of the piece, Mills and Reichel’s script beautifully depicts him as a conflicted man and Teddy Ladley does a wonderful job portraying the many layers of Riser. As General Pershing, Scott Wakefield, who created the role in the Prospect Theater production, exhibits a layer of fatherly charm that adds poignancy to the show under a steely military exterior. Alex Crossland, Keiji Ishiguri, and Kevin Robert White portray numerous other characters with ease, with Crossland’s portrayal of the soldier who takes a shine to Suzanne especially heartwarming.

With the exception of just a few instruments, the majority of the cast also double as the orchestra and they are all adept musicians under White’s music direction. Many even play numerous instruments throughout. Reichel’s musical staging exhibits tight choreography as the actors trade off instruments and move set pieces around on Douglas Clarke’s beautiful multi-layer wood set. Clarke uses a mass of cords that evoke telephone wires doubling as a screen for the beautiful projections by Dallas Nichols, which incorporate archival pictures and video to help depict the period and various settings. The choreography by Molly Lajoie is bright, fun, and well danced by the cast. Daniel Davisson’s lighting paints the stage in beautiful images, including a fairly realistic portrayal of a fire, and the costumes by Cari Sue Smith are a wonderful combination of period pieces and modern street clothes used for the modern-day period framing device which helps provide a connection between the past and the present.

The Hello Girls is a refreshing and rewarding musical that sheds light on these unknown women. It’s both a patriotic musical and a lesson in feminism as it honors the first women soldiers in the U.S. Army. It’s also a rich, rousing and enjoyable piece of theater and an eye-opening history lesson.

The Hello Girls runs through January 30, 2022, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit or by calling 602-254-2151.

Music and Lyrics by Peter Mills; Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
Director/Musical Staging: Cara Reichel
Choreographer: Molly Lajoie
Musical Director: Kevin Robert White
Assistant Director: Elise Palma
Dialect and Language Coach: Pasha Yamotahari
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Video Designer: Dallas Nichols
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Costume Designer: Cari Sue Smith
Hair + Makeup Designer: Shelby Joiner
Properties Master: Sarah Harris br> Director of Production: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Michelle Elias*
Assistant Stage Manager: Maylea Bauers*
Covid Safety Manager: Tatiana Trujillo
Company Manager/Assoc. Production Manager: Tyler Welden

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Grace Banker: Rosemarie Chandler*
Helen Hill/Dance Captain: Michelle Chin*
Pvt. Eugene Matterson/Others: Alex Crossland
Agnes Coleman: Alicia Ferrin
Louise LeBreton: Carmiña Garey
Pvt. Robert Dempsey/Others: Keiji Ishiguri
Cpt. Joseph Riser: Teddy Ladley
Bertha Hunt: Bonnie Beus Romney
Suzanne Prevot: Gabrielle Smith*
General John Pershing: Scott Wakefield*
Lt. Ernest Wessen/Others: Kevin Robert White*

*Members of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.

This review is by Gil Benbrook for Talkin’ Broadway.

Melisa Tien’s SWELL to Premiere Online at HERE

Created by 26 artist-collaborators, Swell weaves together ten original, new music compositions by ten composers.

Melisa Tien

Playwright, lyricist, and librettist Melisa Tien is the creator and producer of the upcoming live, online song cycle Swell, presented by HERE from March 17-21, 2021. This contemporary work about immigrants and children of immigrants, written by immigrants and children of immigrants, is directed by Elena Araoz with music direction by Tian Hui Ng.

“Right now, the U.S. feels like it’s on the brink of so many things – politically, economically, socially. Immigrant stories, especially ones that humanize the people they’re about, help highlight those who are often left behind when, for example, a medical disaster happens. Swell reminds us these are real people, simply trying to make their way, like everyone else,” Melisa said of the piece’s subject and timeliness.

Swell features the work of composers and lyricists Joshua Cerdenia, Carolyn Chen, Justine F. Chen, Or Matias, Tamar Muskal, Polina Nazaykinskaya, Leyna Marika Papach, Izzi Ramkisson, Kamala Sankaram, Jorge Sosa, Stavit Allweis, Konstantin Soukhovetski, and Melisa Tien, who draw from their personal histories and cultures. Hailing from Mexico, India, Israel, Japan, Trinidad, the Philippines, Russia, and Taiwan, the composers’ unique, surprising, and deeply human stories are expressed through voice, piano, cello, and violin.

Performers include mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, soprano Mimi Hilaire, tenor Alok Kumar, and baritone Ricardo Rivera. Instrumentalists include members of the Victory Players Nathan Ben-Yehuda, Clare Monfredo, and Elly Toyoda. Additional collaborators are Video Designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Audio Engineer Jon Robertson, Video Engineer Kris Kirkwood, Production Stage Manager Neelam Vaswani, and Assistant Stage Manager Alyssa K. Howard.

As an online presentation, Swell is building upon the wealth of knowledge that has accumulated over the past year in live, online productions. It will feature singers singing together remotely, and aims to incorporate accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, through captioning, an interpreter, and a new application that conveys music in a dynamic visual format.

Melisa summarizes the origins of the piece: “The seed for Swell started when I attended a new music festival a few years ago and was struck by a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s. It was tied to her home country of Haiti and I recall being so moved by it, partly because it put me in mind of Taiwan, where my own family is from. I started to wonder where the other U.S.-based new music writers were, who came from outside the U.S. I couldn’t think of any, yet I was convinced there had to be new music writers out there who identified as immigrants, or children of immigrants, who had stories to tell, and I wanted to hear them.”

Half of the program will be presented on Wednesday, March 17 at 8pm ET, and the second half will be presented on Thursday, March 18 at 8pm ET. The full program will stream on Friday and Saturday, March 19-20, at 8pm ET, and on Sunday, March 21 at 6pm ET. Audiences can purchase a sliding-scale ticket ($5-50) and will receive details for a password-protected video on HERE’s website.

Melisa Tien is a playwright, lyricist, librettist, producer, and educator. She is the author of the plays Untitled Landscape, Best Life, The Boyd Show, Yellow Card Red Card, and Familium Vulgare, co-author of the music-theater works Swell, Daylight Saving, and Mary, and co-producer of the audio experience/podcast Active Listening. A New Dramatists resident playwright, Melisa is a recipient of a grant from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music, and Theatre, a commissionee of the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Project, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting. She teaches experimental theatrical writing at Sarah Lawrence College. BA, UCLA; MFA, Columbia University.

Read the full article from Broadway World here.

“The Free Wheelin’ Insurgents” by Psalmayene 24 Featured in “Indigenous Earth Voices”

Psalmayene 24

Proving that a theater can be groundbreaking even when its grounds are closed, Arena Stage is launching a virtual spring season that includes a film about Indigenous North Americans and their relationship to the land — entirely written, directed and acted by Native people.

“Indigenous Earth Voices” will premiere in May, the fourth in a series of pandemic-era films that Arena Cultural Director Molly Smith has produced since the start of the outbreak that shuttered theaters around the world. Following the template of the other docudramas, which included “May 22, 2020” and “The 51st State,” “Indigenous Earth Voices” features the verbatim words of Native American and First Nation subjects from the United States and Canada as fashioned into monologues by Indigenous playwrights and actors.

“It’s a ‘heart’ project for me,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I just realized that more than half my life I’ve spent with Indigenous people, whether being in Alaska or being married to a Yankton Sioux.” Before coming to Arena in 1998, Smith spent 18 years at the Juneau company she founded, Perseverance Theatre, and her wife, Suzanne Blue Star Boy, is an artistic adviser on the film.AD

The movie is a key ingredient in a wholly reimagined 2021 for Arena. In a plan announced last July, its in-person performance season was to have started up again last month, with the world premiere of Eduardo Machado’s “Celia and Fidel.” Now that play, which was forced to close last March, and four other productions will be presented later, and subscribers have been offered refunds or exchanges.

The digital roster replacing them will also include a free streaming series called “Arena Riffs”: three original filmed musicals, each 20 to 30 minutes and debuting in March and April. Actor-director Psalmayene 24 will unveil his “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents,” a “pandemic-era hip-hop musical,” to be joined by as yet untitled projects by the indie-folk duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson and composer Rona Siddiqui.

Shannon Dorsey during filming in Rock Creek Park.
Shannon Dorsey during filming of “The Free Wheelin Insurgents,” by Psalmayene 24 in Rock Creek Park. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“These are fully conceived and created for the virtual form,” Smith said, adding that the short versions may be developed into longer productions, possibly even for live stagings. “The artists in all three have said they have a hunger to continue to build on these projects, so we shall see.”

Psalmayene 24 was shooting “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents” in the District’s Rock Creek Park on Sunday, with four other actors: Louis Davis, Shannon Dorsey, Gary L. Perkins III and Justin Weaks.AD

“It’s the story of a cadre of hip-hop theater artists who are meeting to rehearse in Rock Creek Park,” said Psalmayene 24, who wrote three songs for the piece, with choreography by Tony Thomas and music direction by Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez.

“It explores issues like violent versus nonviolent protest, love and mental health,” he added. “And these artists are grappling with the inability to do what they love doing the most, which is live theater.”

Washington theaters have been increasingly active in creating content online, even if the monetary returns are meager. Arena has been particularly active in filmmaking. As Psalmayene 24 noted: “That’s one of the positive things that have come out of the pandemic. It’s forcing us to be creative. That’s what we need as artists: We need to be locked in a box to figure out how to break out.”

Arena will again offer digital classes with actors, playwrights and others, including such artists as Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Nehal Joshi and Machado. But perhaps the most noteworthy offering is “Indigenous Earth Voices,” by virtue of the unusual fact that a major American theater company is providing a breadth of opportunity to Native artists who struggle for national recognition.

Read the full article by Peter Marks for the Washington Post here.