World War Two-era band leader, Louis B. Jordan is one of music’s best kept secrets. He was one of the most successful African-American musicians of the 20th Century, selling millions of records and appearing with other music legends, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. But as is the case with many past artists of color, Jordan’s name has faded from memory, despite the magnitude of his success and influence. In 1992, writer Clarke Peters helped revive Jordan’s fame with a wildly successful musical, Five Guys Named Moe. Five Guys was one of the early theater musicals to use the jukebox format – forming a story around previously written music. To honor the 25th anniversary of the original, Ebony Repertory Theater mounted an effervescent new production starring legendary, award-winning star, Obba Babatundé.
The premise is simple. Nomax, despairingly drunk after his girlfriend leaves him, falls asleep and dreams of the five Moes: Big Moe, Little Moe, No Moe, Four Eyed Moe and Eat Moe. Through the joyous songs from Jordan’s catalog, the Five Moes teach Nomax how to be a better partner and a better man. As Nomax, Babatundé is a wonderful revelation, turning what could have been a two-dimensional Scrooge into a complex character, struggling to figure out his desires and if he’s strong enough to achieve his goals. At the end of the first act, the Five Moes lead the audience in a sing-along, “Push Ka Pi Shie Pie.” Instead of simply joining in the fun, Babatundé goes off the rails, staggering and singing almost uncontrollably. The audience isn’t sure if this night will end in redemption or catastrophe. This is a powerful choice from a very intelligent artist.
The Five Moes are perfectly cast: Octavius Womack as Big Moe, Trevon Davis as Little Moe, Jacques C. Smith as No Moe, Rogelio Douglas, Jr. as Four-Eyed Moe and Eric B. Anthony as Eat Moe. Though they sing and dance gorgeously as a group, each of the Moes gets a moment to shine. Douglas, Jr. brings the house down with his hilarious, falsetto turn in “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” and Davis endears in “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That.” The five-piece jazz band is first class, pumping out Abdul Hamid Royal’s nimble arrangements with energy and flair. On opening night, Royal played piano, Louis Van Taylor on sax and clarinet, Christopher Gray on trumpet, Chris Johnson on trombone, Land Richards on drums and Ian Seck on bass.
The production moves quickly and fluidly thanks, in part, to the talented production team: Scenic Designer, Edward E. Hayes, Jr.; Costume Designer, Naila Sanders; Lighting Designer, Dan Weingarten; and Sound Designer, John Feinstein. Director and choreographer, Keith Young expertly blends the show’s humor with his star’s gravitas, creating a joyous, but thoughtful night of theater.
Five Guys Named Moe is playing at through June 11th at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, Los Angeles.
— Chiedu Egbuniwe.