Don't Tell Mama - Cabaret is Back!

The Cast of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Production of Cabaret.  Photo Credit: Mark Garvin

Arts News Now contributor Anthony Stoeckert takes readers back to the Kit Kat Klub, interviewing the leads Cabaret now at Bristol Riverside Theatre.  Here, find talk on irony, icons, show history, rehearsals, dance, and more.

By: Anthony Stoeckert 

The classic musical Cabaret is set in Berlin in the late ’20s and early ’30s. It’s a time and place where people who struggled to find acceptance established a community and made homes for themselves, but their way of life is about to be upended by the rise of the Nazis.


“These were all people living in the moment, unaware of what was to come,” says Chris French, who will play Cliff Bradshaw in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s staging of Cabaret, March 21 to April 16. “There’s a really powerful number in the second act, ‘What Would You Do?’ where Cliff makes the choice to leave Berlin. It’s a powerful choice and bold choice, one that takes a lot of courage. And I think we’re really contextualizing that.”

Photo Credit: Mark Garvin for Bristol Riverside Theatre

Coincidentally, on the day I interviewed French, I read a news story about educators and parents in Florida (which happens to be French’s home state; he grew up in Orlando) who were wrestling with new laws affecting what can be taught—and which books can be carried—in Florida’s schools. Some parents wondered if leaving was the best thing for their children while others believed they shouldn’t give up the lives they have built. Teachers talked about the challenges they faced and determining what the right thing to do by their students.


“Not everybody can make the choice to leave,” French says. “How do you reconcile that? It’s really, really hard. The beauty of this piece is that it holds a mirror up to that.”


Cabaret features music by John Kander and Lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff. It’s based on the play I Am a Camera, which was adapted from Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 autobiographical novel. As the show opens, the audience is watching a performance at the Kit Kat Klub, hosted by the Emcee. Cliff, who is gay, arrives in the city to work on his new novel and somehow finds himself living with Kit Kat Klub star Sally Bowles. Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966 with a cast featuring Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles, Bert Convy as Cliff, and Joel Grey as the Emcee. Grey won a Tony for the role, and also an Academy Award for his work in the 1972 film adaptation, which also scored Oscars for Liza Minnelli for playing Sally Bowles and director Bob Fosse.

Cabaret features music by John Kander and Lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff. It’s based on the play I Am a Camera, which was adapted from Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 autobiographical novel pictured above.

Despite some serious themes, Cabaret is fun and entertaining—the show has been described as seedy, kinky, and sexy, which pretty much guarantees fun. It is also filled with great songs, including the opener “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Perfectly Marvelous,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and of course, the powerful title song.


Sally Bowles is one of the truly legendary characters in American musical theater, and Doylestown native Jenny Lee Stern will be playing the part in Bristol. Stern says she’s a huge Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli fan, and has long wanted to play Sally.


“I knew ‘Cabaret’ from the Liza Minnelli movie, so I always knew this was definitely a part that I wanted to tackle,” Stern says. “I’ve been coming in and starting to work on the play, and it’s very different. It has the same basic story, but there’s just so much more to it than the sort of razzle dazzle that we think of when we think of the iconic Bob Fosse ‘Cabaret’. That was a pleasant surprise to me, and also a great challenge.”

"Despite some serious themes, Cabaret is fun and entertaining—the show has been described as seedy, kinky, and sexy, which pretty much guarantees fun."

The Cast of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Production of Cabaret.  Photo Credit: Mark Garvin

Stern’s love for musicals was sparked by her father, Marty, a retired championship-winning track coach at Villanova, who is also a big fan of movie musicals.


“My grandmother, his mother, was a performer in the USO during World War II,” Stern says. “He was a tap dancer and they had an act together. And her husband, my grandpa, played saxophone in vaudeville, and we come from a huge vaudeville family.”


Stern has performed on Broadway, in theaters in Philadelphia, and also sings concerts, where she has often sung songs from Cabaret.


“There’s a different way you need to sing those songs in a standalone cabaret performance, as opposed to in the context of the show,” she says. “It’s just a completely different way of approaching that material. That was a huge thing for me as well—letting go of my muscle memory of singing ‘Cabaret,’ probably once a week, twice a month, for years and years. I have a certain way that I do it, but in the context of the show, it’s completely different. So that’s been really cool, to explore these songs that I’m so familiar with, and so connected to, in a different way to tell our story.”

Jenny Lee Stern as Sally Bowles in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Production of Cabaret.  Photo Credit: Mark Garvin

Cabaret also holds a special place in French’s memory because the first Broadway show he saw was the Sam Mendes-directed revival that ran from 1998 to 2004.  “I had the cast album before I saw the show, so it’s one of the scores that I got to know as a theater kid,” he says. “Getting to work on this now is so exciting. It’s just really chock-full of truly amazing song after song after song.”


The cast also features Danny Rutigliano as Herr Schultz, Jo Twiss as Fraulein Schneider, and Christian Elán Ortiz as the Emcee. Keith Baker, the former artistic director at Bristol Riverside, returns to direct the show.


During rehearsals, French said he was having a lot of fun because playing Cliff doesn’t require a lot of singing and dancing, so he’s been enjoying watching his fellow cast members.


“I’ve been watching these amazing dancers and Kit Kat Klub performers do this incredible choreography and these musical numbers,” he says. Describing Stern’s work as Sally, French used one word—Wow.


“It’s a lot of fun to watch her sing some of these really iconic, wonderful songs,” he says.

Jo Twiss as Fraulein Schneider and Danny Rutigliano as Herr Schultz.  Photo Credit: Mark Garvin for Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Production of Cabaret

Even though he’s long loved Cabaret, French says he never thought about playing Cliff, but now that he’s delving into the character, he’s seeing him from a different perspective. It’s easy to think of Cliff moving to Berlin as him running away from something, but French says there’s much more to it.


“He’s there to live his life,” French says. “That’s where he goes to live his life freely and openly. And then this crazy set of circumstances arises and he finds himself living with Sally Bowles of all people.”


French describes Cliff as someone who couldn’t live his life truthfully in America or London in 1931. It’s a story he deeply cares about, as he came out of the closet while he was in college.

“I do have experience with feeling that way,” French says. “I don’t want to compare that to anything with anyone who came before me, because I live in a different time. But it was during the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That was the rule of the land when I was a kid and a teenager, and those were the sorts of things that made me not want to not come out and not want to accept this about myself. So, I do identify with that, for sure, and I feel privileged and grateful that I live in a time when I don’t have to hide this about myself. I think that’s important. I think we have to stay alert and awake to the fact that that is new and just as we have it, it could quickly go away.”


Cabaret is at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, Pa., March 21 through April 16. For tickets and information, go to or call 215-785-0100.

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