Frum-roll, please

Most musical theater actors brag about the shows they’ve done. Caroline Cohen touts the shows she’s turned down. “Mamma Mia!” Pass. “Fiddler on the Roof.” No thanks.

Why? As the British-born Jewish performer became more religiously observant, she had to drop the secular conventions of London’s theater scene. But that didn’t mean she had to say goodbye to the stage.

Cohen’s original show, “From Showbiz to Shabbos,” features her singing popular Broadway tunes and more. The catch: In keeping with Orthodox modesty, she performs for women-only audiences.

If it seems she might hurt ticket sales by banning an entire gender from the theater, forget it. To date, Cohen has taken the show around the world, playing to sold-out houses from Britain to Israel, from South Africa to New York.

She makes her Bay Area debut Sunday, April 6 at a benefit show sponsored by REUT: The Committee to Strengthen Jewish Unity and Friendship. The proceeds go to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

As with all of her performances, the concert at Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto will be strictly girls’ night out.

“From Showbiz to Shabbos” tells the story of Cohen’s spiritual evolution from West End hoofer to Orthodox Jew. In between, she sings songs from “Les Miserables,” “Wicked” and “My Fair Lady,” as well as a few Cohen originals.

It’s no surprise Cohen, 27, would include songs from “My Fair Lady.” For a year, she understudied the role of Eliza Doolittle in a 2002 London revival of the Lerner and Lowe classic. Though a huge boost to her career, in some ways, the job wasn’t so loverly: Try observing Shabbos while waiting backstage dressed as a Cockney flower girl.

“I thought of scenarios that weren’t practical,” she says by phone from her London home. “Like having them put on makeup for me. I eventually became used to it.”

Cohen didn’t start out life so observant. Growing up, she and her family did spend Friday nights together, but most Saturdays, Cohen attended dance class.

It wasn’t until later, studying drama at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, that she found herself drawn to Orthodox Judaism. On Friday nights there, she started showing up at the British equivalent of a campus Hillel.

“Shabbos was the kick-start of my interest in Judaism,” Cohen says. “I was brought up on very good morals, mirrored in Judaism. It was amazing to think the values we just came up with to be a good person were actually written down in the Torah.”

After meeting the Chabad rabbi of Liverpool, she became frum (strictly observant), even studying Judaism for a time at Neve Yerushalayim, a Jerusalem yeshiva.

Eventually, Cohen had to make a choice: continue the rat race in the London theater scene, or live the life of an observant Jewish woman.

“When I first quit, I was on high,” she recalls. “Then it was, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done?’ You expect doors to open once you close another. I had a lull and was quite discouraged. Once I became frum, I didn’t know I would be able to channel my passion.”

About three years ago, Cohen had the idea of a one-woman musical show recounting her spiritual journey. Since that journey remains ongoing, the show remains a work in progress. But “From Showbiz to Shabbos” packed ’em in across Britain. Then she took it on the road.

On tour with the show in South Africa two years ago, she found more than just receptive audiences. There she met the man she would later marry.

When not performing, Cohen teaches singing and dancing at her sister’s London studio. She’s also released a CD, “We Believe,” which pairs her big Broadway-style soprano with 10 Jewish songs, some of them co-written by Cohen.

As for her upcoming Palo Alto show, she’s excited to return to California. Cohen visited the state when she was 13, including taking in the sights of San Francisco. She still remembers Alcatraz and riding the “trams,” as she calls the city’s cable cars.

For her next project, Cohen wants to write a full-blown musical, but nothing that involves singing cats or profane hand puppets. Her musical would track the struggles to lead a fuller, more observant Jewish life. With a little bit of luck, men might be able to see this show.

But if not, Cohen would be content performing for women only.

“There’s something very special, very empowering, about women events,” Cohen says. “[Singing] is very revealing, and comes from somewhere very deep within a person. You allow yourself to be much more vulnerable.”

“From Showbiz to Shabbos” will be performed by Caroline Cohen at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 6, at the Cubberley Community Center Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets: $18-$180. Information: (650) 424-9800.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.