By Ron Fassler
NY Summerfest has come and gone much like summer itself, and as fall has crept in, so has an original musical titled Aussie Song, part of the yearlong New York Theater Festival, which I saw at one of its four performances this weekend at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Chelsea. Based on the story of her parents, Frances Rae Key tells the tale of how her American father was rescued by the Australian military, along with two other sailors, when their ship went down during World War II, and how her mother fell in love with him while he was convalescing at a neighbor’s apartment in her building in a small Australian town. Building on the notion of how family is essential in living life fully and fulfilling one’s destiny, we follow the journey of the character of the author’s mother, Teddy Trager (Jordan Stam), from Aussie native, to war bride living with her new husband’s Texas family while he finishes his debt to Uncle Sam, and then on to their new life as a married couple in Florida, where they created a successful pre-school.
It’s a big undertaking, especially as Ms. Key is the show’s book writer, composer and lyricist. Usually this isn’t the job for one individual, though the late Jonathan Larson (Rent) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) have managed to pull it off. It wouldn’t insult Ms. Key to say that she is not quite in their league yet, but what she has managed is to tell these handed-down stories of her family with great care, open devotion and an eye towards making things as entertaining as possible. Utilizing a combination of Equity and non-Equity members, the mix of professional and non-professional blurs that line of distinction, as this is a most appealing group of twenty-six (including more than a few under the age of twelve).
The company is led by Jordan Stam, who is totally winning as the young (and then slightly older) Teddy. She has a beautiful singing voice and both the ability to convey comedic and dramatic moments equally. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see her on Off-Broadway and Broadway stages very quickly. As her parents, Jerry Chapa and Georgia Kate Haege perform with ease and create thoroughly believable characters (they also sing very nicely too). As Raymond Key, the sailor who marries Teddy, William Demyan finds a bit of the grit under what is otherwise a perfectly nice guy.
And it’s a bit more of that grit the show might consider investigating. Though the director, Ellie Handel, works hard to make the story more dramatic than it is, Ms. Key would do well to find ways to take the story out of the realm of “nice” and more towards a tougher telling. I’m sure how her parents met, courted and persevered is a compelling one for her, but for audiences sitting for ninety intermission-less minutes it might need some fiction to go with the non-fiction in order to maximize its potential. As I understand it, this was a truncated version of what is ordinarily a longer piece, and perhaps there’s more meat on its bones when it’s performed in full. But I hope that length isn’t all it has to offer, as it felt that it still has a way to go to venture beyond the ordinary. Once Teddy comes to America two-thirds of the way in, the only dramatic hold it has over its audience is whether her husband will come back alive, and it’s not enough to sustain that tension. Nothing very eventful happens to her in her assimilation in America, which might be what was missing in this shorter telling. If that isn’t part of the show as it stands, it might be a worthwhile matter to explore (and again, perhaps sticking to all the facts is tying Ms. Key’s hands behind her back).
Still, this is a warm and lovely play that with some creative dramaturgy could go the distance and entertain audiences for a long while to come.
Aussie Song played September 30th through October 6th at the NY Summerfest at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th