By Karen Isaacs
Terrific performances, wonderful choreography and close harmonies make it almost certain that you’ll thoroughly enjoy Five Guys Named Moe now at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through Sunday, Feb. 27.
The plot of the show (the book was written by Clarke Peters) is so thin as to be almost non-existence. A musical group – the five guys named Moe – emerges from a 1930s style radio to give advice to Nomax, a young man whose girlfriend has left him. He is drowning his sorrows and wallowing in self-pity.
It is all about the music which is from the catalogue for the great Louis Jordan. Jordan may not be that familiar to modern audiences, but his career was long and influential. He wrote and performed numerous hits. His work crossed over from the recordings aimed at the African American audience to mainstream and to country hits. He led his own band and recorded with the top artists of the period.
In the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame he is mentioned as the father of rhythm ‘n blues and the grandfather of rock ‘n roll.
This show depends on the music and it is great. All six of the performers – the five Moes plus Nomax sing and dance with ease. They work as such an ensemble that it is difficult to single out any one performer as being better than the others. They all deserve top grades.
While you might not recall Jordan, you are more likely to know some of the songs. From the title song to “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” to “Let the Good Times Roll,” to “Caledonia” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” they will get your toes tapping.
Jordan developed a style of performing and songwriting often called “jump blues.” This was characterized by syncopated vocals (sometimes spoken or shouted), comedic lyrics and urban contemporary (for the time) themes.
While the songs are terrific, after a while they start to sound and feel the same. The show has very few ballads; most of the songs are high-energy and high volume.
I’ll admit to being new to the show though not new to Jordan’s music. I’m not sure how faithful director/choreographer Brittney Griffin was to either the original productions – it started in London in 1990 and came to Broadway in 1993 – or the subsequent revivals, particularly in England.
Were the extended audience-participation numbers done that way earlier or were they created by her? Either way, it felt as though they went on too long. Particularly the first act finale “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie,” a pseudo-Calypso beat song seemed endless. These types of numbers work best when the audience has had a drink or two.
Each of the performers creates distinct if not fully developed characters. From body language and facial expressions, you see them as individuals. Marcus Canada as Nomax is naïve and self-pitying. Arnold Harper as Eat Moe is the stereotype jolly large person who utters the well-known line, “it must be jam, ‘cause jelly don’t shake like that.” Then there the calmer leader No Moe played by Josh Walker, dapper Four-Eyed Moe played by Jacquez Linder-Long plus Darren Lorenzo as Big Moe and Devin Price as Little Moe.
They are backed up by a seven-piece ensemble Dexter Pettaway, Sr. A highlight are the saxophone solos; the saxophone was Jordan’s instrument.
If you want a toe-tapping good time, make it a point to see Five Guys Named Moe. For tickets, visit PlayhouseOnPark.org. It will warm up a cold winter day or night.