Get our newsletters

Doylestown mom Jenny Lee Stern relishes turn in still-relevant “Cabaret”


Jenny Lee Stern is a doyenne of Doylestown, a protean performer who discovered, like the title character of "Rocky," the 2014 musical in which she made her Broadway debut, going the distance is worth every extra mile it takes.

Only her distance was the 80 miles from New York to hometown Doylestown, a somewhat chaotic commute she made after each performance of the film-inspired Philly-based musical slugfest.

These days, the commute is much less complex and can afford Stern the feeling of being grounded on the good earth that is her Bucks County home: From star turns at New York cabarets to the starring role in "Cabaret" at the nearby Bristol Riverside Theater, March 21-April 16, Stern stakes her success not only on theatrical and club dates, but also the dates she keeps with her kids for meals and fun at home, and the time she offers her community through volunteerism.

Active and assertive, she is not one to sit alone in her room. No, she says, "I'd rather hear the music play."

Especially when she's part of that sound of success: As Sally Bowles, the sultry/tawdry self-centered singer who is part of the morass that is the moral turpitude of pre-World War II Berlin, the actress gets to the corrupted seemingly uncaring core of her character. Berlin's Bowles, a brazen brat with a heart of chipped bronze, was introduced to literature in 1939 by Christopher Isherwood in his "Goodbye to Berlin," then adapted into the stage version ("I Am a Camera," by John Van Druten) in 1951, before evolving into a John Kander/Fred Ebb theatrical musical smash in 1966. (The Oscar-winning Bob Fosse film version came out in 1972.)

With this production — staged by BRT veteran Keith Baker — bidding theatergoers "wilkommen" to 1931 Berlin, it is, says Stern, a back to the future field trip traversing the malice coursing through humanity.

The then-German aura of Aryan arrogance gone awry and its era of ethnic cleansing has somehow slipped through civilization's cracks to let the darkness in today, with 21st-century hate a modern horror avatar.

Avers the actress, "What we're living through now...the anti-Semitism, shooting up of synagogues, schools…it's a challenge not to play up the end of the show's story" as Hitler hijacks humanity and takes a crowbar to the cracking seams of German society.

The furor the Fuhrer generated nearly a century ago in Germany remains germane, echoed by some of the incendiary incidents happening on this country's blood-soaked streets today.

But Sally Bowles is not bowled over by the problems encroaching on her city; she would rather ignore them. Her anthem, reminds Stern, is one of "live life until you die." Indeed, it is not far from Stern's philosophy — without the character's careless salaciousness.

Get a life? Stern gets it. "My number one goal is to have a good time in life," but, by far, this is no heartless heathen with a broken halo: Bowles may throw caution to the wind; Stern is there to catch it. Getting life's kicks does come with the need for kneepads, she knows. Indeed, Stern understands life "comes with responsibilities," such as those to her three children, "making sure there is food on the table" and a haven to call home.

That slice of heaven that is her haven is Doylestown, where the actress' humanity shows through in such efforts as fundraising for "Every 90 Minutes," which supports ALS research, and Broadway Cares / Central Bucks District.

Indeed Stern is proud of the work she does offstage and on — numerous performances as the late legendary country singer in "Always…Patsy Cline"; starring roles at the Bucks County Playhouse ("Grease," Damn Yankees"); acting at the Bucks County Center for the Performing Arts; and many credits in various incarnations of the off-Broadway playful parody, "Forbidden Broadway."

From "Forbidden Broadway" to verboten Berlin, Stern's gang of fans and admirers has been manifold. But none more supportive than her parents, Dr. Sharon, a retired speech pathologist, and Martin, retired cross-country coach at Villanova University, both of whom tracked their daughter's career and accomplishments through the ages amid hurdles and highlights.

Don't tell Mama? No, there wasn't anything she couldn't discuss with her mother. In fact, laughs Stern, 45, "maybe I told her too much."

But there was much to tell, many salient points from a life in the arts that set sail when Stern was only 3, with dancing and gymnastics on her toddler timetable, carrying her through Linden Elementary and Central Bucks West High School, where "I think I set a record of doing four shows," including one while still a middle school student, she recalls of "Into the Woods," "Anything Goes," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "My Fair Lady."

Stern's own three fair ladies are putting a smile on her face and a bounce in her step; oldest daughter Nora just stepped into the limelight, completing a turn in the lead role in a production of "The Secret Garden," staged at the Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville NJ.

The secret to a caring quartet that is the Stern family? "I am trying to raise my kids," she says as way of tribute, "the way my parents raised me."

And she's doing just that — although Stern concedes the controlled chaos of her hectic schedule: "The hustle never stops." But then, says the daring doyenne of Doylestown, "neither does the excitement."

Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist from Abington. He writes occasional theater-related columns.

Bristol Riverside Theater, Cabaret, Broadway, Jenny Lee Stern