On March 12, 2020, opening night at Bristol Riverside Theatre looked a little different than usual. As showtime approached, nervous, confused conversations rippled through the space. There was also a noticeable amount of empty seats, a curious situation given the high-energy offering of Cabaret.
But outside the walls of 120 Radcliffe St., the country was preparing to shutter itself against the novel coronavirus. The next day, Cabaret’s run was halted indefinitely as non-essential businesses, including all arts and entertainment venues, were mandated to close.
Now, exactly three years later, Cabaret is set to finally enjoy a full run from March 21 to April 16, with an opening performance set for Thursday, March 23.
The Tony Award-winning musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb follows Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who arrives in 1931 Berlin during the chaotic Weimar-era looking for inspiration for his novel. Instead, he falls in love with star burlesque performer Sally Bowles at the sleazy Kit Kat Klub. However, the decadent nightlife quickly comes under threat as the Nazi Party grows in strength by the day.
Ahead of opening night, The Times caught up with Keith Baker, former BRT artistic director who is returning to direct Cabaret, and his wife Jo Twiss, a local stage veteran who is reprising her role of Fraulein Schneider.
For Baker, it’s a thrill to put a different spin on this classic musical…even from a few years ago. He promised that, if audience members who saw the show in 2020 come back, it won’t be a repetitive experience. The sets, costumes and orchestra are all being used in new ways that, according to Baker, will help attendees more readily relate to what’s taking place on stage.
“We all know how much our world has changed, how much our profession has changed, the expectations of diversity and inclusion,” said Baker. “And I thought the last show that we did was a little cold, a little removed from where I would like it to be. This one is going to be exactly the opposite. It’s immediate. It’s passionate. It’s political. It’s sad. It’s a very joyful experience. And it has one of the best musical scores of its time. When you hear these songs that everybody is familiar with in the context of the show, it’s quite a different experience because the songs mean something else.”
Casting changes were made to several of the roles, with BRT welcoming Broadway veteran Jenny Lee Stern as Sally, touring theater actor Chris French as Cliff, and Christian Elán Ortiz as the Kit Kat Club’s Emcee. But some performers, such as Twiss, have the pleasure of revisiting the same role from three years ago.
“Fraulein Schneider, she’s lived though a lot. We meet her at post-World War I, post-pandemic, post-revolution, post-everything and inflation. She’s done her best. She went from being very wealthy as a child to keeping this boarding house together, which is the old family home. She’s struggling to keep things moving because there’s just not much money, but she has survived on her own, making things work as best as she can,” said Twiss.
Though Fraulein is extremely self-sufficient and tends to depend only on herself, she unwittingly opens her heart to a man — Herr Schultz, played by Danny Rutigliano — who is staying at the house.
“It’s a real gift,” said Twiss on getting to play Fraulein for more than one night. “It’s been quite a remarkable journey.”
In October 2019, mere months before the world turned upside down, Baker, along with founding director Susan D. Atkinson, announced that they’d be stepping down from their positions, turning the reins over to Ken and Amy Kaissar. Baker is humbled to be welcomed back for Cabaret.
“I’m just happy they wanted to do this and that I was the one they thought of to do it,” he said. “It’s a show that I have a good affinity for and I think I know how to make it work in a way that is a moving experience for the audience. The spirit that they will feel emanating from the stage is one that really makes them feel as though they’ve had a wonderful night in the theater. They haven’t wasted their time. Something has happened, some good piece of art has happened and they were there to see it.”
Baker added that, despite Cabaret taking place in an entirely different era, it boasts many commonalities to societal issues seen today.
“Cabaret tells a true story, and in the telling of that story, one begins to see remarkable parallels to us today in things like the growing anti-semitism, the blindness or the deliberate ignorance of what is going on right in front of them, the banning and burning of books, the hyperinflation in which money was rendered meaningless, the chaos in the streets, the beating of people, the killings and things of that nature,” said Baker. “I don’t press on them at all. I don’t try to point them out, but they’re there and the audience will respond to that and realize that what they see in the characters are the same things they see in themselves.”
The overarching theme that Baker wants audiences to take away is love, and how beautiful relationships can be formed, even in times of extreme crisis or later in life.
“I hope that people are deeply moved by the humanity of these people who strive for love wherever they can find it,” he said.
Twiss added, “It’s a powerful piece, an emotional rollercoaster. I think audiences will be transported and will have a lot to talk about after the show.”
Visit brtstage.org or call 215-785-0100 for tickets and more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org