Jamie O’Reilly’s childhood sounds like the premise for a Technicolor-drenched 1950s Hollywood musical: a powerful Irish-American, Shakespearean actor father revered in the local theatrical community, a radiant, silver-voiced diva of a mother, and a brood of 14 singing children, each more talented than the next. Put them in a small town in northern Illinois, where they cheerfully perform concerts for needy families and are surprised when the neediest turns out to be their own. As a movie concept, it’s a winner; in real life, it could be a hard-to-follow first act.

The town was north-suburban Crystal Lake, where O’Reilly’s parents, James and Winifred, raised their family in the theatrical and Catholic-activist traditions O’Reilly’s forebears brought with them when they came to Chicago to work on the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Jamie, their ninth child, was gifted with her mother’s lilting soprano and an impressive range. She studied opera at DePaul University, but by graduation (in 1981) had decided she was more interested in folk music. “After college, the best-paying jobs in folk were in Irish music,” she says. “So that’s what I started out doing.” She married an actor, formed a band–Jamie O’Reilly and the Rogues–had the first of two daughters, and went on the road with Between the Times, a social justice show produced by the liberal Catholic organization Call to Action. After two years of touring she was ready to stay put for a while; by ’92 she had also had enough of the Irish band. “I was never unappreciative of Irish culture,” she says, but she wanted to get out of the pub scene and felt constrained by “the Celtiphile mentality,” which “at that time had an exclusionary factor to it.” She wanted to write her own material, expand her repertoire to other cultures, do things that might be provocative. “I didn’t really have a need to play it safe anymore,” she says.

Something else had happened too: James O’Reilly, whose work had included a stint as Body Politic Theatre’s artistic director, died in 1990. His death “was huge for me,” O’Reilly says. “When there’s a strong presence in a family, you have an emotional need to compare yourself somewhere. It put things enough in perspective that it made me make a choice of one road or the other. I needed to find my own voice–which meant not just singing songs that had been handed down through my family. And the road to audition and wait for someone else to discover me was not an option any longer. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and just go out.” Since then, she says, “I don’t wait for the phone to ring. I find places to bring what I do and to bring the people whose work I appreciate.”

Foremost among these is veteran guitarist and songwriter Michael Smith. Since 1993, O’Reilly and Smith have written, produced, and performed four “folk cabaret” shows: The Snow Queen, Pasiones, Scarlet Confessions, and Hello Dali. “They have elements of the European tradition–a little more exotic and intellectual than an American musical review–and they’re acoustic, generally accompanied by guitar rather than piano,” O’Reilly says. All four opened initially as showcases at the Lunar Cabaret, which is owned by O’Reilly siblings Beau and Kate. Hello Dali: From the Sublime to the Surreal, their biggest hit so far, is a celebration of art, with original music performed against a backdrop of the paintings that inspired it. The show charmed critics and audiences during an eight-week run at Victory Gardens Theater last fall, with brother Beau and Jenny Magnus joining O’Reilly and Smith in the cast.

Performance is still central to her life, but O’Reilly now also sees herself as a writer, producer, teacher, consultant, and coach. She conducts a course, “Self-producing for the Freelance Artist,” at the Guild Complex and Columbia College and is working on a book on the same subject with brother Willem, a writer whose credentials include a doctorate in theater and an MBA.

“I discovered recently that if I ever need to, I could stop singing and I’ll still have plenty of work to do,” she says. Though she’s felt often enough that she ought to go the corporate route–“even a year ago I was wondering if I should go to work in a bank,” she says–her course is about hanging on through the rough spots, breaking out of the passive mode that’s the default setting for most artists. She’s been through a divorce, a ten-year concentration on feminist literature, separation from the church, and a liberating immersion in Middle Eastern dance. “Once my father died,” she says, “and I left the Irish music and realized I could be whatever I wanted to be, I wanted the whole body involved–and that included my hips.”

O’Reilly appears with Anne Hills next Thursday, February 8, at 8:30 at FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn (708-788-2118). She’ll perform pieces from her new self-produced CD, Swimming Deeper, which range from original compositions to traditional ballads like “Annie Laurie.” There’s an $8 cover; for more information call 312-458-0822.

–Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.