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Five Guys Named Moe
At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Is it permissible to question the selection of “Five Guys Named Moe” to open the 2017-2018 subscription season at the Court Theatre. After all, this theater is the home of Greek tragedy, William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, and August Wilson. But the Court has chosen a revue that features the works of a musician and composer noted for songs like “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That,” “Choo Choo, Ch’boogie,” and “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.”
After watching the first 10 minutes of “Five Guys Named Moe the question is happily answered. The show might not display the gravitas of the drama classics, but its entertainment quotient is pure pleasure, and that should suffice for any theatergoer with a weakness for humor in music delivered by an exemplary cast in a hugely pleasurable production.
“Five Guys Named Moe” received its premier in England in 1990 and ran for more than four years in London, opening on Broadway in 1992. The show, created by Clark Peters, celebrates the music of Louis Jordan (1908-1975), a black saxophone player, composer, and bandleader who was enormously popular from the late 1930’s into the 1950’s. Jordan was a supreme entertainer and has been credited with being a bridge between the swing music of the 1930’s and the rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll styles that followed. He was a monster recording star with dozens of hit recordings, most of them luxuriating in the jive manner of such hipsters as Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie. Jordan may have produced the most consistently infectious popular music of his day.
The revue is anchored in the 1940’s time frame. The lights come up on a young man named Nomax (Stephen Allen), who is depressed over romantic troubles he is having with his girl friend. Out of his floor model radio emerge five cats named Eat Moe (James Earl Jones II), No Moe (Eric A. Lewis), Four Eyed Moe ((Kelvin Roston, Jr.), Little Moe (Darrian Ford), and Big Moe (Lorenzo Rush, Jr.). The five fantasy visitors take it upon themselves to give Nomax some hard-edged advice about male-female relations and how to straighten out his love life. Exploiting this frail reed of a storyline the ensemble performs 25 songs composed by Jordan or identified with his jump musical style.
“Five Guys Named Moe” resembles the popular Fats Waller review “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” except that the Waller vehicle doesn’t attempt a plot and cumulatively its songs are better. The majority of Jordan songs can be categorized as novelty tunes emphasizing sassy lyrics, though there are a handful of melodic numbers, notably “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” There is plenty of wise guy word play and the production oozes energy, charm, and best of all, talent.
The revue is in constant motion, with choreography and dance movement skillfully interwoven into the performances by Christopher Carter’s musical staging. There is lots of audience interaction, especially effective in the Court’s intimate playing space. The aisles come into frequent play and the performers organize a conga line of spectators that weaves up the stairs and into the lobby to end the first act. At the beginning of the second act, slips of paper rain down to the viewers with tongue twisting lyrics to the song “Push Ka Shi Pie” that turns the theater into a communal sing along. Spectators are brought up onto the stage and even though I loathe audience participation as a theatrical pestilence, in a show with an exuberant vibe like “Five Guys Named Moe” the gimmick works.
Director Ron OJ Parson, in partnership with Christopher Carter, keeps the action going at an irresistible clip. The actors stir up a delicious physical storm but all the movement looks unforced and the players are not only immensely qualified as singers, dancers, and actors, they are all having a great time, and the joyful mood readily communicated itself to the whooping and hollering opening night audience.
All the performers are co-stars in the success of the show. I thought Eric Lewis was particularly dazzling in some of his dance bits and two-ton Lorenzo Rush, Jr., used his bulk with grace and spot-on humor, never sucking up to the audience for an easy laugh. That’s not to deny rightful props to Allen, Jones, Ford, and Roston. This is quite an ensemble!
Musical accompaniment is provided by a strong jump band seated above the rear of the stage, led by pianist Abdul Hamid Royal. Courtney O’Neill’s single set effectively sustains the image of one of those Atwater Kent radios of the Great Depression years. Michael Alan Stein’s costumes capture the Harlem-in-the-1940’s zoot suit look. The physical staging is completed nicely by Victoria Deioio’s sound design and Heather Gilbert’s lighting.
“Five Guys Named Moe” is so ebullient and fast moving that viewers may not recognize that this is a very savvy slice of musical theater and may even evoke a bit of racial and musical history in American pop culture. So, for those who like social significance in their theatergoing, “Five Guys Named Moe” may have its rewards. But mostly, it’s sufficient to just let the good times roll.
“Five Guys Named Moe” runs through October 8 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.n. Tickets are $44 to $74. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.