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Cabaret is alive and well in Philly

The popular new Broadway Cabaret at Rittenhouse Grill will return for the 2024-25 season

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5 minute read
McArdle, a 61-year-old white woman with red hair, sings smiling into a mic in a fine-dining restaurant.
Andrea McArdle performs at Rittenhouse Grill in April 2024. (Photo by Jimia Davis.)

The art of cabaret is alive and kicking here in Philly, thanks to a new series drawing Broadway stars to Rittenhouse Grill (formerly The Prime Rib) at the Warwick Hotel on 17th Street. The series, titled Broadway Cabaret at the Rittenhouse Grill, kicked off last December with a sold-out performance by Tony Yazbeck and continued with appearances by Karen Akers and Andrea McArdle. On May 20 and 21, John Lloyd Young (the Tony-winning star of Jersey Boys on Broadway) will wrap up this season’s shows. It’s already sold out, but cabaret lovers rejoice: the series will be back next season.

Just like Sally Bowles (an international character who has persisted through decades of fiction, plays, movies, and musicals), cabaret beckons us to live despite terrifying, overwhelming events. And the people behind this Rittenhouse series also embody the ways tragedy can close one door in life but open another, as long as we refuse to submit to despair.

The story includes the owner of a beckoning—some would say iconic—Philadelphia restaurant; a man and woman who never expected to meet (again), much less fall in love; and the restaurant itself, which faced closure during the pandemic but endured with the support of those who cherish it.

The art of good instincts

The men behind this cabaret are Garth Weldon, owner of Rittenhouse Grill, and Randy Swartz, who served for decades as the artistic director of the Annenberg Center. Each is strongly invested in the arts. Both men have impeccable instincts, and show grace, grit, and determination when confronted by life’s unpredictable blows.

Weldon and Swartz have very different personalities. Weldon, sophisticated, elegant, and tastefully outgoing, opened the Philly Prime Rib in 1997 after managing its DC sister restaurant for 20 years. He greets diners as if they’re entering his home. He’s low-key, but he loves to socialize and can easily, authentically get on anyone’s page. Swartz, who quietly radiates his long experience with and devotion to the arts, is a taller, stately, quieter presence. He readily admits that he is innately shy: when entering a crowded room, he gravitates to a corner. But prior to his 2020 retirement from the Annenberg (now Penn Live Arts), Swartz introduced hundreds of dance companies to Philly audiences with more than 2,500 performances from all over the world.

Grief and new beginnings

In 2019, Weldon’s longtime partner in life and work died suddenly from a virulent form of cancer. The family and professional upheavals that followed meant Weldon could no longer call his restaurant The Prime Rib, necessitating a change in brand and menu after 23 years. Diners were understandably confused. And then the pandemic hit. He had to “pivot and go on,” Weldon says, and did all he could for the employees he was forced to lay off. To stay afloat, he turned to takeout, which he had no experience doing.

The two men in black tie stand with Akers in the middle, her arms around them. They’re all smiling.
From left: Rittenhouse Grill owner Garth Weldon, actor Karen Akers, and cabaret producer Randy Swartz. (Photo by Hugh E. Dillon.)

Swartz also faced the turmoil of enormous loss when his wife of three years died in 2013. Still grief-stricken, five months later he attended the funeral of a close friend, Larry Teacher, co-founder of Philly’s Running Press publishing house. One of those who eulogized Teacher was psychologist and writer Judith Sills. Taken with her words and message, Swartz and another recently widowed friend invited Sills to dinner at The Prime Rib, to talk about the healing process. Swartz says the time he went on to spend with Sills was magical. They got married one year after that dinner.

Visioning an American songbook cabaret

Following his retirement, Swartz began to feel his creative juices stirring. As he and his wife enjoyed dinner at Rittenhouse Grill last summer, they settled on a goal of bringing cabaret back to Philadelphia and decided that the Grill would be “a premier destination for cabaret”. When they later approached Weldon (whom they knew only as a congenial host), he agreed to the gamble, as he calls it now. With Swartz curating, they put the first performance together in about three weeks, and Yazbeck played to a full house.

Swartz explains that there are many variations of cabaret. Some are variety shows and some look like the cabaret in the famous 1966 stage musical of the same name. The art of cabaret goes back at least to 16th-century France, but “our focus is to establish an American art form,” Swartz says. This “American Songbook Cabaret” will feature “artists who have recorded albums, encompassing an array of styles from Broadway to Latin dance music and a lot in between, celebrat[ing] the music and the people who created it.”

What’s the difference between a nightclub act and cabaret? “Cabaret is theater and music. It is the story of the entertainer in relationship to the music or it is about the vision of one creative voice,” Swartz says. “It can also be about a particular theme or emotion. Great cabaret is always about something in addition to the music.”

Broadway stars, up close and personal

The first season of Swartz and Weldon’s cabaret was a resounding word-of-mouth success, with notable artists accepting their invitation. Karen Akers (who was Tony-nominated for the 1982 premiere of Nine, her first Broadway role) arrived in February, and Andrea McArdle, who originated the role of Annie on Broadway in 1977 and was also nominated for a Tony, performed in April. Two May shows with John Lloyd Young are already sold out.

Next season, Swartz teases a lineup including multiple Tony Award-winners as well as Grammy and Emmy nominees. Patrons will be able to purchase bar or table seats, the latter including a three-course dinner with vegetarian options. The dates are TBA, so fans should watch Rittenhouse Grill for announcements. “There will be eight performers in six presentations that you would expect to see in a theatrical setting,” Swartz promises, “but instead they will be in the intimacy of a wonderful supper club, up close and personal.”

What, When, Where

Broadway Cabaret at the Rittenhouse Grill. Curated by Randy Swartz. $75-$200. 2024-2025 dates TBA. The Rittenhouse Grill, located in the Warwick Hotel, 1701 Locust Street, Philadelphia. (215) 772-1701 or rittenhousegrill.com.

Accessibility

Rittenhouse Grill is a wheelchair-accessible restaurant via a ramp leading to the hotel lobby entrance.

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