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Canberra Today 8°/13° | Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Snubbed switchboard girls step into the spotlight

Rhianna McCourt in “The Hello Girls”. Photo: Jane Duong

IN a splendid coup, producer Ylaria Rogers and her fledgling company Heart Strings Theatre have secured the rights to stage a musical so contemporary that most readers won’t have heard of it.

“The Hello Girls”, originally staged in 2018 by New York City’s Prospect Theater Company, tells the story of the female telephone operators’ unit of the US Army Signals Corp, set up in 1917.

Following a team of bilingual whizkids never acknowledged for their service after the war, creators Peter C Mills and Cara Reichel canvas musical styles from ragtime to jazz with a bit of the Andrews Sisters thrown in for good measure.

Rogers agrees that it was “a bit of a coup” to get the rights, but to her the biggest coup of all is that they have been offered The Playhouse, a much bigger auditorium than the 92-seat Courtyard Studio, where last year’s hit, “Urinetown The Musical”, took place.

The larger venue requires a different style of set, costumes and band, “but I think we’re going to rise to the occasion,” she tells me.

When I said, “fledgling”, Heart Strings Theatre was actually founded two years ago when “Urinetown” was supposed to open, but covid forced a 10-month delay, so this is just the company’s second production.

“I would describe us as a semi-professional company,” Rogers says, “but we do offer a guaranteed fee to all artists who are willing to be Canberra-based, even if that means living with their friends or aunties or uncles.”

“We have so many great performers here, but we don’t have a professional Canberra theatre company, and I wanted to bring our artists back to work here.

“Our big thing is to bring exciting Broadway shows, but on a small scale.”

Rogers says it’s not a musical the general public will very likely recognise, but, she stresses, “it’s part of Heart Strings’ philosophy to bring stuff that we don’t get a lot of.

“Sure, we have mainstream shows like ‘Wicked’, but not those off-Broadway shows.”

The show’s based on five real women who were sent to France to serve in the US Army but not considered to be veterans, receiving no pension and no financial recompense. 

Happily, in 1975, 27 of the 273 who had served, survived to be given formal recognition. 

Artistically, it’s an ensemble musical with an evenly balanced cast of five men and five women, so it’s not a dramatic musical such as “Spring Awakening”, but much closer to “Come From Away”, also based on real life.

It’s no secret that the show involves actor-musicians who can also dance – the show’s choreographer will be Amy Orman. Under musical director Alexander Unikowski, the cast is bound to have a great time performing the tight harmonies of the period.

Rogers says that Jason Langley, as director, takes some of the “tropes” of musicals and challenges them, putting the female characters to the forefront, as the script demands. He has taught at every major drama school in Australia, and has an exceptional voice as a director in shows from “Wonderful Town” to “Legally Blonde”.

“Jason’s shows always have so much heart and open up to those who haven’t had a voice,” she says. 

Rogers will perform the role of Suzanne in “The Hello Girls”, coincidentally her mum’s name, but there’s a lot of variety in the three-dimensional characters, who are based on real people, not just cardboard cutouts. 

And will it be going to the Hayes Theatre? Watch this space, Rogers says. 

“The Hello Girls”, The Playhouse, September 7-9.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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