My heart was pretty pumped when I received the assignment to cover one of my favorite musical revues. And then, it sank.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a first class tour of the Louis Jordan jukebox musical revue Five Guys Named Moe and was blown away by the energy and musicality of the performers and the swinging band that backed them up. Not long after, Mill Mountain Theatre, my hometown’s regional playhouse, mounted a production and I was once again in musical heaven. The string of knock-out numbers – “Caldonia,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” filled my heart with song and dance, with the vibe of a 1940s supper club.
Reading about Robert O’Hara’s new twist on Five Guys Named Moe, I learned the production coming to Arena Stage could be characterized as “big band meets boy band.” Digging a little deeper I read that O’Hara wanted to accomplish a couple of things with his reinvention of the show, including making it more of a tribute to Jordan, the renowned performer and songwriter. O’Hara would refocus the songs more as monologues, aiming for more intimacy. And, as the director told DC Theatre Scene’s Keith Loria, “We’re taking some liberties to give it a more R&B feel, as opposed to a broad Broadway appeal.”
Would these liberties and updating mean the razzle-dazzle musical numbers and high energy performances would veer closer to Boyz II Men or New Edition than to gentlemen jazz performers of 1940s? How contemporary would O’Hara and his team make the show? As I entered the Kreeger Theater to take my seat for this revamped revue, I tried to keep both an open mind and an open heart.
My heart can beat again to a jazzy beat and the good times are rolling once more for Louis Jordan, courtesy of O’Hara’s sexy, tuneful, and perfectly cast production Five Guys Named Moe.
O’Hara found a way to update Moe without losing a whit of the elegance and panache called for by the effective book by Clarke Peters. The show still works seamlessly to introduce the songs Jordan wrote or recorded in the pre-Rock and Roll era.
The conceit of the show is that a hard-partying dude named Nomax – Kevin McAllister – stumbles home after a drunken night to find his woman has hit the road due to his wicked ways. As he is trying to think straight and see straight, he turns on the radio and thereby activates a fantasy of sorts where five guardian angels invade his world.
Through the magic of theatre – and the effective set design by Clint Ramos – Nomax’s stylish radio glows and grows into a fully realized, Las Vegas-style set bringing those ubiquitous entertainers and advice-givers, the Moe’s. Nomax wants to win back his girl, Lorraine, and the Moe quintet is eager to help him. His resistance to their charms, songs and words of wisdom is part of the charm of the show, elevating it from standard musical revue fair.
O’Hara’s vision for his take on the production is seen most readily through the title characters. Rather than stepping to the stage from yesteryear, O’Hara’s quintet of Moe’s appear to be a hip group who personify today’s dance-friendly, close harmony, photogenic pop groups but with a heaping dash of retro style. Imagine if Usher, Sean Combs, Kanye West, Chris Brown, and Pharrell Williams formed an all-star group and gave Louis Jordan’s old songs new twists? Hip-hop style meets 1940s cool flavored by the timeless, tailored threads courtesy of Dede Ayite’s costume designs.
The quintet assembled by O’Hara could stick together and begin touring, as far as I am concerned; they were that tight as singers and dancers. Throughout the show, each Moe had ample opportunity to shine as individual song and dance men. They enter to a title song that raises the roof a few inches and establishes the gents in fine form.
Clinton Roane, as Little Moe, shines as he extols the virtues of being a chubby-chaser in “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That!” No Moe – Jobari Parker-Namdar – praises his liquor swilling lady love in “Messy Bessy.” Big Moe -Sheldon Henry – takes charge with the rousing audience participation number “Caldonia.” Paris Nix, as Eat Moe, makes the most of his big moment, singing the lesser known gem, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” (Just to clarify: This song was originally recorded by Jordan in 1946 and is not the same song made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers in the 60s.)
The Parisian flavored number, “Azur-Te,” was not only beautifully performed by Travis Porchia as Four-Eyed Moe but artistically enhanced by the gorgeous projections designed by Jeff Sugg.
As fantastic as the five actors are as the Moe’s, McAllister’s Nomax nearly steals the show and does it with effortless stage presence and a powerful baritone voice. McAllister captures the nuances of a man trying to sober up while dealing with his song and dance fantasy. In the opening number, “Early in the Morning,” and moments when he joined the Moe’s in various numbers were true highlights of a show filled with killer musical moments.
FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE
Closes December 28, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $99
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and tickets
My fears that an update of Five Guys Named Moe would diminish the show were unfounded. Seeing it again was like reuniting with an old friend who is in better shape than ever, and has even learned a new trick or two.
Five Guys Named Moe . Written by Clarke Peters . Featuring the music of Louis Jordan . Directed by Robert O’Hara . Featuring: Sheldon Henry, Kevin McCallister, Paris Nix, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Travis Porchia, Clinton Roane . Choreography: Byron Easley, assisted by Taylor Daniels . Music director: Darryl Ivey . Set design: Clint Ramos . Costume design: Dede Ayite . Lighting design: Alex Jainchill . Sound design: Lindsay Jones . Projection design: Jeff Sugg . Stage manager: William E. Cruttenden, III, assisted by Marne Anderson.
FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE
Closes Dec 28
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway Director Robert O’Hara, better known for his authorship and direction of incendiary new plays that focus on issues of ethnic and gender identity, demonstrates that he can get the joint jumping with a cast of stars and a lot of style.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post The songs never fully set the stage ablaze, and the lightly comical evening sails by in less than two hours
Itai Yasur . BroadwayWorld O’Hara’s skillfully lighthearted take had the audience gasping, laughing, singing along, and even dancing on stage in the hectic act one finale
Winnefred Ann Frolik . WomanAroundTown a surefire crowd pleaser.
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide instead of any New Jack Swing, or percussive snap of the 80s, Darryl G. Ivey’s musical direction doesn’t alter the songs all that much
Ramona Harper . DCMetroTheaterArts Robert O’ Hara pumps a new beat into yesteryear grooves in a hand-clapping, foot stomping, conga line dancing, “jumpin’ jive” musical fantasy come-true.
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom Truly the talk of rhythm town, Kevin McAllister as Nomax is the show’s shining light.