Sally Bowles (Janelle Gilreath, left) and the Emcee (Cody Keown) in "Cabaret."Photo from Alex McMahan Photography
The Chattanooga Theatre Centre opened its 89th season with the Sam Mendes revival version of "Cabaret." In a very different show from the original Broadway version, executive director George Quick turns the MainStage into the notorious Kit Kat Klub, showing the decadence of Berlin as the Nazis rise to power in the 1930s.
In this exceptional cast of 17, Cody Keown owns the stage with his flamboyant portrayal of the iconic, highly sexualized master of ceremonies. His energetic performance matches the Alan Cummings' revival and superbly seizes the Mendes conception of this character. Keown is exceptional in this difficult task.
As plot and subplots develop, young American wannabe writer Cliff Bradshaw meets English cabaret performer Sally Bowles. R. Clay Johnson and Jennelle Gilreath tackle the respective roles of these star-crossed lovers, both displaying the passion needed to create the extremely different convictions of the duo.
Johnson delivers a strong performance. The character's excitement, his ambiguous sexuality and, finally, his disgust are evident in a most thoughtful interpretation. Gilreath equally delivers in her rendition. Without question, her character's unrestrained excitement for life is shadowed by unwanted realization of reality.
Another doomed pair of romantics include middle-aged German boardinghouse owner Fraulein Schneider and her Jewish fruit vendor fiancé, Herr Rudulf Schultz. As Fraulein Schneider, Denise Hardee-Gossett is a standout and audience favorite. Her vocals are lovely. T. Craig McNamara makes one relive harsh and unthinkable memories of the not-so-distant past as his Herr Schultz innocently and naively becomes another tragic memory of days of terror.
Kendra Gross is a delightful Fraulein Kost. Her "lady of the evening" persona brings humor in her characterization of this female predicament of the time. Vocally she is very strong. Alex Whit deserves mention as Nazi Ernst Ludwig. His stage presence takes an authoritative harshness as his true purpose is realized.
Costume designer Scott Dunlap works his usual magic with dress of the period as PG-rated lingerie makes the Kit Kat girls and boys -- Tinamari Coleman, Bobbi Burks, Bonnie Marilyn Jean, Jessica Wilson, Mariah Rinkel, Timothy Kelley, Brett Kolbas, Damon Thomas, Keith Walker and Timothy White -- remind us that the burlesque come-on is sexy.
Many high-energy, sexually suggestive musical numbers set the tone for this post-Golden Age with choreographer Lindsay Fussell expertly achieving an illusion of polymorphous sexuality on the CTC stage. The performance of the entire cast leaves a feeling of darkness amid the pleasures. The performance does what it is intended to do.