The final curtain

Bristol Riverside’s Keith Baker directs last show, ‘Cabaret,’ which celebrates opening night Thursday

Final bow: After 30 years, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Keith Baker is directing his last local show. ‘Cabaret’ celebrates its opening night on Thursday, and runs through April 12. Source: Bristol Riverside Theatre

As he prepares to step down from his role as artistic director at Bristol Riverside Theatre after 30 years, Keith Baker understandably describes the transition as “bittersweet.” Still, Baker is making sure he goes out with a bang by putting a personal touch on his last local directorial project – Cabaret, which celebrates its opening night on Thursday.

“It’s a show that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’ve wanted to share it with the audience,” Baker told The Times.

The musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, first performed on Broadway in 1966, centers around the Kit Kat Club, where individuals in Germany can cast their worries aside during the early 1930s. Inside, American writer Cliff Bradshaw meets the star of the cabaret, Sally Bowles. The lovers attempt to remain in the world of fantasy, but the Nazis’ rise to power is constantly knocking at the front door.

According to Baker, when Harold Prince directed the debut Broadway production, he connected it to the civil rights struggle taking place at that time.

“As it’s been performed decade after decade since then, people have found it incredibly relevant and resonant of current situations in our society,” Baker said. “It’s very pertinent to our lives now. It seemed to me more relevant than ever before, given the divisiveness, the hate crimes, the political difficulties, a country in which the citizens are fighting each other, not physically but certainly verbally, all of which was prevalent and very much a part of Germany at the beginning of the 1930s.”

For his final show, Baker is adding a special element to help immerse audiences not only in the world of Cliff and Sally, but everything happening outside the club.

“It’s going to be filled with projections and video in a very sophisticated manner. Often, the show is done just in the Kit Kat Club. It’s kind of abstract, it can be almost any time and place. But I’m setting this very definitely in Berlin, 1930,” said Baker. “The show is rough. The show is raw. It’s not the 1966 version.”

Additionally, Baker has recruited a dream team to help make Cabaret a success, including a 12-piece orchestra, which will play memorable songs like “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time,” and choreographer Stephen Casey, who worked on past BRT shows such as Ragtime and Jesus Christ Superstar.

“I want the choreography to have a sense of period, style and authenticity,” said Casey. “I am not attempting to duplicate or re-stage someone else’s work or vision of the piece. Authenticity to me is very important, as this is a period piece, and bodies moved differently and danced differently in 1929 and 1930 than they do today.”

While Cabaret is Baker’s last show at BRT as artistic director, he stressed that this isn’t “goodbye,” and that he has no plans of settling down anytime soon. Baker will continue to lead creative efforts for the theater’s summer concert series and the American Christmas Songbook, and possibly spread his wings beyond Bucks County.

“I’m eager to move out beyond this immediate Bristol/Philadelphia area and give what I have to offer to different audiences. I’m hopeful that those opportunities will come along,” he said. “I have a lot to do. I don’t have any intention whatsoever of retiring. I wouldn’t know what I’d be retiring to, I’d have no idea, because I love the work. I never go to work. It’s all about what I truly love to do.”

In a few final words, Baker shared why theater-goers should come to see Cabaret.

“If I do pat ourselves on the back a little bit, we do a great job with musicals, in particular,” he said, reflecting on the success of Next to Normal earlier this season. “I think this will be a dramatic experience for them. It will be a fun time. This show is a little bit naughty, a little bit dangerous, a little bit scary and very, very funny. It will be something that they will remember, for sure.”

BRT closes out the season with the world premiere of A Leg Up by Bucks County’s own Ken Kaissar, running May 12-31. The farce will be directed by Amy Kaissar. The Kaissars will take over leadership from Baker and founding director Susan D. Atkinson this summer.

Cabaret runs through April 12, with opening night on Thursday, March 12, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale starting at $48, with military and student discounts available. New for Cabaret, audiences can enjoy an up-close-and-personal view of the action, with special cabaret-style seating at every performance. Tickets can be purchased at brtstage.org, 215-785-0100 or at the box office, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com