Pick ASR! ~~ History Lesson: “The Hello Girls” at SAL

By Barry Willis

A mostly unacknowledged contribution to victory in the First World War gets a nice up-close-and-personal examination in The Hello Girls, at Sonoma Arts Live through May 5.

Adroitly directed by Maeve Smith, the musical tale by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel explores the US Army’s recruitment of bilingual female switchboard operators for service near the front lines in France in the final years of the war. The Army had reached the quite reasonable conclusion that women were far more competent at the task than were the men who were trying to do the job.

Caroline Shen, Jenny Veilleux, Skyler King, Tina Traboulsi, Jonathen Blue, Emily Evans, Phi Tran, Sarah Lundstrom at Sonoma Arts Live. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The result was an all-female unit of the Army’s Signal Corps, or “America’s First Women Soldiers,” as the cover of the playbill has it. Jenny Veilleux stars as Grace Banker, a real historical figure, the first recruit, and the ultimate leader of a team of five operators. Banker’s teammates Suzanne Prevot, Helen Hill, Bertha Hunt, and Louise Le Breton, are endearingly portrayed by Sarah Lundstrom, Emily Owens Evans, Caroline Shen, and Tina Traboulsi, respectively. Traboulsi is especially entertaining as the only native French woman in the group. She also performs on guitar and clarinet. Evans doubles on violin.

The Hello Girls is a wonderful production on many levels …

Drew Bolander is compelling as Lt. Joseph Riser, tasked with recruiting and training the new operators. Skyler King, Jonathen Blue, and Phi Tran appear as assorted officers, enlisted men, and other characters, with veteran actor Mike Pavone in a convincing role as General John J. Pershing, who originated the initiative. Blue is the show’s choreographer and also performs on snare drum and keyboard, backed by a all-women band—Erica Dori and Elizbeth Dreyer Robertson on percussion, with Elaine Herrick on bass and cello.

There’s a whole lot of talent on the sparsely-decorated SAL stage, evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Frank Sarubbi. Without any hint of parody, Peter Mills’ songs are reminiscent of the WWI era while sounding quite contemporary, and are delivered with gusto by the cast. The larger story is simply and effectively conveyed, while sub-plots are also made clear, such as Le Breton’s being underage, or Lt. Riser’s challenges in attempting something new.

From L to R) – Caroline Shen, Tina Traboulsi, Emily Evans, Sarah Lundstrom, Jenny Veilleux at work. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The Hello Girls was produced with expert advisors. It’s a great example of both plausible historical fiction and onstage story-telling, with enough detail to make it realistic, such as the mention of the hellishness of sustained trench warfare. A brief but particularly poignant scene features Phi Tran as a German prisoner of war, spared when captured only because he spoke English. He states flatly that his comrades were killed as they tried to surrender—a reminder that in armed conflict, good guys and bad guys alike are capable of atrocities and war crimes.

Jenny Veilleux in “The Hello Girls”. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The larger historical context isn’t included in the story, but it’s one that might prove enlightening for potential ticket buyers. American public knowledge about World War I is shockingly scant. At its outbreak, most of the crown heads of Europe were cousins. They were incredibly suspicious and jealous of each other, leading to an arms race that ultimately consumed 20 million lives. The armistice that ended the war established conditions that led to WWII twenty years later, which in turn gave us the world we now inhabit.

The US Army’s 2,300 female telephone operators made an enormous contribution to the victory, but as we are reminded late in the play, the Veterans Administration refused to recognize them as anything other than “civilian contractors” although none of them had ever signed contracts. This insult was corrected decades later, when only 63 of them were still alive to receive benefits.

(From L to R) – Emily Evans, Sarah Lundstrom, Tina Traboulsi, Jenny Veilleux at SAL. Photo credit Oberlin Photography.

The Hello Girls is a wonderful production on many levels. Especially fitting is a post-show celebration of veterans in the audience, asked to stand and be recognized while the cast performs theme songs from all six branches of the US military. Both the show’s cast and these veterans deserve every bit of approval. Like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, it’s something that works for everyone regardless of where you land on the political spectrum.


ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


ProductionThe Hello Girls
Written byCara Reichel and Peter Mills
Music/Lyrics byPeter Mills
Directed byMaeve Smith
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru May 5th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!