TRAVERSE CITY — You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy “Songs of a Catholic Childhood,” a musical concert at the Williamsburg Theater Saturday night.
You just have to let the lyrics and music of Chicago singer/songwriters Jamie O’Reilly and Michael Smith take you back to ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s America — a time of large Catholic families, the era of John F. Kennedy’s election as the first Catholic American president before the folk Mass reforms of Vatican II.
Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy played movie priests. A virtual convent of Hollywood actresses donned habits and wimples to play nuns on the silver screen. Millions of Catholic kids attended parochial schools, among them Smith in the 1940s and O’Reilly in the 1960s. Catholics ate fish on Friday and the church decided what movies parishioners should see and not see.
“Songs of a Catholic Childhood” is not a song-and-dance show, nor does it satirize the Catholic Church, said O’Reilly.
“People are often concerned there might be a political edge to it,” she said. “But it’s a non-political, first-person account of how a child interpreted the world of that era. It contrasts Michael’s and my experiences growing up Catholic.”
A generation separates Smith and O’Reilly. The oldest of six children, Smith grew up in the working class Irish/Italian neighborhoods of New Jersey after World War II. Baby boomer O’Reilly was the fourth of 14 kids in an artistic family that lived in a small Illinois town after Vatican II.
Their repertoire of more than 20 songs, sung as solos or duets, also includes Latin favorites and Catholic religious songs made famous by movies.
Their own songs — hilarious, poignant and serious — are written from the perspective of a child trying to make sense of the rituals, rosaries, confessions, holidays and the death of a father, as well as popular movies and songs of the time.
Take “Sister Clarissa,” a ballad about a nun who believes in “free will, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and a quiet fire drill.” She stands 11 feet tall “hugs you too tight and gives you a star on the forehead for spelling Connecticut right.”
“Pagan Children” is about the days when “the stars got divorced, you couldn’t go to their movies, no matter how fun, ‘specially if they played a nun,” and “every once in a while you’d adopt a pagan child . . . whatever happened to all those little pagan children… they never write, they never call, after we put them through DePaul. God bless them one and all.”
There’s an ode to movie actresses who played nuns: Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young, Rosalind Russell, Celeste Holm, Audrey Hepburn, Debby Reynolds, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Shirley MacLaine, Penelope Cruz, Whoopi Goldberg, Mary Tyler Moore, Susan Sarandon, Sally Field, Julie Andrews, and yes, Eric Idle (a British comedian).
Other songs include: “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” “Boychild,” “She Would Sing the Kerry Dances,” “Sure Has Grown,” “I Fell Out of Love With Sin Today,” “I Brought My Father With Me,” “Transfiguration,” “Song of Bernadette,” “Vaya con Dios,” “Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Holy City/Jerusaleum.”
Five of the songs on their concert list are from Smith’s 1995 autobiographical play, “Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate.” It won five Joseph Jefferson Awards, presented annually by a volunteer non-profit committee to acknowledge excellence in Chicago area theaters.
O’Reilly and Smith created the concert originally as a commission for a Chicago girl’s academy reunion. It debuted in September 2011. They’ve performed it a dozen times in the Chicago area, generating interviews and play time on WGN radio and other outlets. The Williamsburg concert is their first outside Illinois.
Smith will host a songwriter’s workshop on Sunday at the Williamsburg Theater from 1-3 p.m. The workshop costs $30. Seating is limited for the workshop, so advance registration is recommended. For more info call 941-8667.
The concerts starts Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Williamsburg Dinner Theater, 4230 M-72 East, is located east of the U.S. 31 and M-72 intersection in Acme. Tickets: $20 advance and $25 at the door. A cash bar and appetizers are available. Call 938-2181 for more information.