A revival of Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood by David Resnick, based on the novel by Robert Byrne
August 16–19, and 23–26 @ 7:30 PM
August 18, and 27 @ 2 PM
Bell Tower Theater (2728 Asbury RD)
by Bryce Parks
The Bell Tower Theater will proudly stage Fish on Friday by David Resnick, a re-envisioned revival of his own musical Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood—the Musical which is based on the novel of the same name by iconic Dubuquer, Robert Byrne. This sparkling revival of the musical is also directed by David Resnick.
This re-imagined version of Robert Byrne’s book on growing up Catholic in Dubuque in the 1940s was written specifically for the Bell Tower Theater. Follow the antics of Tommy Shannon and his friends from church to class to confession to the school dance.
This talented cast includes Bell Tower veteran Scott Schneider; former participants in their youth program Cody Gartner and Samantha Otto; and newcomers to the Bell Tower stage Josh Harbaugh, Elainee Koehler, Kristin Look, Dorothy Jo Oberfoell, Mimi Resnick, Thomas Taylor and Jake Tebbe.
Performances will be every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. from Aug. 11 to 27. Aug. 11 and 12 are the Early Bird Special performances with tickets being only $10! All other performances are $20. For Girls Night Out on Thursdays, all audience members receive a free glass of wine before the show. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 563-588-3377 or visit BellTowerTheater.net.
Considering the very special local subject matter of this show as well as its timely staging, shortly after the loss of Bob Byrne in late 2016, we thought it was a great idea to pull back the curtain and revisit the history of this uniquely Dubuque musical.
The novel itself dates back to 1970. It was much later, in 2003 or 2004 that David Resnick asked Bob Byrne if he could make his book into a musical. Bob told David he was insane.
“I was looking for something to do creatively,” says David Resnick, who aside from being a composer and playwright is Instructor of Music and Director of Bands at Clarke University and currently in his third term as a member of the Dubuque City Council. “The creative life is a good life, but it’s restless. I really like regionalism in writing, you really get a flavor of things. I love the Midwest, and I was looking for something I could turn into a musical.
“I kept hearing about Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood. It turns out it’s the funniest book ever written about Dubuque. I then heard the author lived in town, so I could speak to him directly. I lined up a meeting and I wrote of couple songs. We got together, and he was a bit wary, but he’s a theatrical guy, and he saw the potential.
“You can’t just take a book and turn it into a musical. You have to turn it all around. I took all of the most theatrical events that happened in the book, and I turned them into one momentous day. I took what I thought was the best visual interesting and compelling parts of his book and make it work.
“With this done, we performed Ask a Nun at a Byrne family reunion. They loved it.
“Bob told me that he took everything that happened in his life and made it more interesting, then put it all together in this book.”
“The more David worked on it, the more Bob liked it,” shares Cindy Byrne, Bob’s wife.
It was last staged 12 years ago. The Grand was under renovation at the time, so it was a Grand production at Five Flags, and David reports that it was a really big hit for them, averaging 500 people each night for eight shows.
“Bob really enjoyed going on stage every night with David at the end,” Cindy tells us. “Maybe people told Bob, although it’s about Dubuque, they were raised in a different town but very similar to Dubuque and they connected to it very well.”
For the 12-year revival, the show didn’t just get a new name; it got a huge revision. A re-visioning if you will.
“We had 40 actors in the first production and 10 in this one,” explains Resnick. “When you limit yourself, that can help stimulate creativity. I realize that if it’s going to live beyond Dubuque, you can’t have a 40-person cast. No one does that big of a cast anymore. It was an interesting challenge to bring it to 10 actors. One actress plays two major characters, but she does it so differently that you might hardly notice. And cast members enjoy performing in the show even more. They get to be in almost everything. That stretches them as actors and they enjoy that.”
Though about Dubuque, the show can play to other communities. With the Catholic aspects of the show, plus World War II, it’s a familiar tale. Add in a young teenager who is always caught between heaven and hell and most anyone can relate.
“The boys goof around and give the nuns a hard time, and the nuns are good-hearted but can give the boys a hard time right back. There’s that tension of being together and trying to grow up and people helping people grow up. It’s always a challenge.”
Bob read the new version and liked it very much. He’s always been the editor for the show.
Resnick reminisces, “I’d send things to him and he would look at it and make comments. One comment to me that sticks is ‘You always need an editor, no matter who you are.’ That was very worthwhile. This new show does have his blessing and songs that he suggested.”
“He was very happy about it. Ecstatic!” shares Cindy Byrne.
David Resnick has always wanted to revisit the show and had hoped to stage a 10-year revival but didn’t have the time to make it happen. Not until now that is.
“For two years I’ve been working on this, and it’s been a really fun project.” says Resnick. “We were absolutely hoping that Bob could see it and, of course, that can’t happen, but Bob felt some joy knowing that it was going to be produced. And Cindy has been a big fan, too.”
“David told Bob he was redoing it, shortening it a bit and tightening it up and retitling it Fish on Friday and Bob was just fine with that,” Cindy told us. “In fact, Bob never really liked the title, Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood. The truth is, the publishers gave it that name. Portnoy’s Complaint and other Jewish novels had just come out and the publishers gave it that name to capitalize on that trend, but Bob was never crazy about that title. It fact it was later released in paperback under a different title, Once a Catholic. And there’s even a sequel that nobody knows about called Always a Catholic.”
Bob’s help in the creation of the show wasn’t just in fleshing out the story. He even made musical suggestions. He had an idea for a song that features different people’s unique perspective of the same situation in their own way. In creating the song, Resnick found a piece (composed in 1860) called “The Beautiful Dubuque Waltz” and used that as the accompaniment for this new song, putting original lyrics and melodies over the waltz.
The timing of the revival is another wonderful tribute to the legacy of Bob Byrne on this community he called home.
“There have been a lot of tributes to Bob already,” Cindy let us know, “in and out of the billiards world (where a whole other side of Bob’s fame will have a lasting impact). And just this week he had a bench placed in his honor outside of Carnegie-Stout Public Library called the Muses’ Bench.”
“I was raised in Catholic school and spent many years as an altar boy,” laughs David. “It was fun to go back with an abiding respect for the priests and sisters who have given their lives to their calling. But they also have their quirks, and we see that they’re real people doing the best they can with human frailties like anyone else. A lot of people are going to find connections to the show.”
One of the major details to consider in a restaging is finding the right stage.
“We’ve been to the Bell Tower Theater and have seen many great productions there,” commens Resnick. “The hardest part for me was to see how this show was going to fit on that stage, but then it got my creative juices going. I approached Sue Reidel and Miki Robinson, and they scheduled the show as soon as they could which was a year and a half out.”
“We were fortunate enough to work with Robert Byrne on Behold My Shorts in 2012 so when David Resnick came to us with the idea to re-invent Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood—the musical for a more intimate stage, we jumped at the chance,” says Miki Robinson, Operations and Marketing Manager for Bell Tower Theater. “As a theater that is committed to producing new works and using local talent, Fish on Friday is the perfect show for us.”
“They like to do a lot of first run shows,” agrees Resnick, “and while mine is not necessarily a first run, it is about Dubuque, and it is retold and reworked specifically for the Bell Tower stage.”
The way you’ll see Fish on Friday at the Bell Tower this month was carefully and specifically designed to go on the stage which is unique and special to both David and the Staff at the Bell Tower Theater.
And you can bet that you’ll see Cindy Byrne in the audience.
“Unfortunately, I can’t be there opening night but I plan to go five times!”
We’ll call that a two thumbs-up review!