by Dick Kerekes
ABET opened its last show of 2009, the world premiere of a new musical by local playwright, composer Frances Rae Key, entitled Aussie Song. This musical traces the journey of the Trager/Key family from l935 to the present day. Ms. Key had heard stories from her mother Teddy Trager and in 2005 she began assembling the history and memories into a show she could put on stage. She wrote the music and lyrics to most of the songs (except “In America”). She then began the task of editing and finding somewhere to showcase her work. ABET Artistic Director Celia Frank read the script, loved it, and in the spirit of their mission statement of wanting to do new plays and develop new talent, put it on this season’s schedule.
Ms. Frank bought on board Caryl Butterley as Director, an excellent choice since Ms. Butterley had worked in New York, not only as a performer but more importantly for this play, as a director specializing in new plays and scripts.
If giving birth to a non musical play is like having a baby, then birthing a musical is like having quadruplets! Ms. Butterley and Ms. Ray worked hours tweaking the script, eliminating some characters and songs and the result is the three hour (with intermission) journey of her mother, Teddy, from Australia to Texas and finally to Jacksonville. Along the way we meet family members and others who touched their lives. With a cast of twenty one there is a lot of meeting and greeting going on.
The play opens in the present at an old age home in England, as Mother Elizabeth (Carson Merry Baillie) starts the ball rolling with her memories of the family. Switch to Castle Hill Australia, we meet young Teddy(Shannon Lahey) and her sister Merle (Montanna Jenkins), mother Ann (Staci Cobb) and father Frank (Bill White) .We learn about their lives for six scenes and then it is l944, and we move to a raft in the Pacific with three American sailors waiting to be rescued. The three yanks are Joey (Justin Kennedy), Tom (Christian Nyman) and most importantly Raymond Key(David Paul) the future husband of Teddy. The couple met after the trio was rescued by an Australian ship.
It was apparently love at first sight, two scenes later still in l944, as Raymond and Teddy are married. Teddy, now grown and played by Stacy Williams, prepares to embark on a troop ship with thirty other war brides going to America, while Raymond is off to combat and to finish the war.
Act II opens on the deck of the ship with Teddy and the war brides singing the lively “Go East, Mae West.”
Next stop Humble Texas, as Teddy meets Raymond’s Family. There is Mama Key (Susan Roche) who sings one of the best songs in the show, “My Daddy Was A Countryman.” Raymond’s sister, Verna (Lindsay Catherson) and his brother, Clemmy (Russell Thrift) are typical brother and sister (always fighting and taunting each other).
We have another flash back to Sister Elizabeth, talking with the now grown grandchildren and their narrative fills us in somewhat about what has happened along the way.
Its now l956, in the Key home in Jacksonville. Why Raymond and Teddy settled in Jacksonville was never made clear, at least not to me. A song entitled “In A Little Dutch Kindergarten” features the children, Frankie (Shannon Lahey), Marie (Samantha Jenkins) and Duane (David Baldwin).
A final trip to the old age home (tucked away on stage left) and we learn of Teddy Key’s very popular day care center in Jacksonville and her work with children in need.
As you can probably tell, I had a task trying to keep up with all the characters and fitting them into this brief synopsis. The grown Merle was played by Samantha Mathers, the head mistress of the school and Mrs. Wiggins, by Greta Russe, the grown Frances (author of this work) was Deborah Hurm, Kelly was portrayed by Margaret-Ann Holmes Hennessey and can’t forget Mark Robinson playing three roles, the captain/ announcer and Mr. Clancy.
The four leads, Bill White, Staci Cobb, Stacey Williams and David Paul, who sang most of the songs were quite good and brought their years of stage experience to their roles. I loved the excellent Australian accents which were easy to understand. I was amazed that even the two youngest members, Ms. Lahey and Ms. Jenkins, had the accents down to perfection.
Director Caryl Butterley designed the set, which was mainly an open stage with the back wall either a black curtain or a blue cloud filled sky for outdoor scenes. Wooden boxes about 2 ft by 2 ft and one small bench were the only furniture and moved as need. If they had used real furniture the show would have been four hours long and they would have needed lots of space to store it.
Aaron Marshall as musical director and the lone musician played superbly on the keyboard. She continues to build an impressive resume as a director but she is also a terrific performer, both as a dramatic actress and singer. Aussie Song was a daunting task for Ms. Marshall and she did it well.
Wendy Sugalski is new to me as a Choreographer but she obviously knows her business, and created some very exciting numbers on this small stage. The light and sound personnel, Bryan Frank and Andrew McCraney, as a team, keep getting better and better. ABET is lucky to have them.
I don’t think ABET could have done any better than Carly Butterley as Director, her expertise and patience coupled with Ms. Key’s rich and complex script, made this an interesting evening of theatre.
The only real suspense in the play is introduced early when we learn that Teddy’s father, Frank, while working as a baker is constantly moving from town to town. Why? It is a secret that you won’t learn until almost the very last scene.
I thought some of the seventeen songs were very good, but in some cases overly long (too many verses). Like most new musicals, I have to hear a song several times before you will find me singing them in my shower. Having a CD for sale eventually, would help make them popular.
The show needs more editing. Running past eleven pm is a no no in Jacksonville. I would suggest in the future when ABET has a long show, to have the curtain time at 7:30 instead of 8.
This is family entertainment; kids will like it because kids like to see other kids on stage. Two quick shout outs before I head out trying to find some kangaroo meat. Kudos to costume designer Margaret Hennessey, whose chosen attire looked authentic. Athough I do think that the character Frank Trager should at least change his shirt once in nine years. Kudos as well to Stage Manager Lisa Albert for her management of the twenty five scenes in this musical. As always, thanks to the Tom Nehl Fund, for helping to bring us all this fun. Opening night was a special treat, as many of the Trager/Key family were in attendance, including the principal subject of the play, Teddy Key.