Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE is the Summer Party You Don't Want to Miss

Obba Babatundé (front) with Octavius Womack, Rogelio Douglas, Jr.,
Eric B. Anthony, Jacques C. Smith and Trevon Davis. All photos by Craig Schwartz

When I moved back to Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, I was fortunate enough to work for a small company led by a president who was loved by everyone who knew him. A true gentleman, Gordon had been in the radio business a long time and was just entering his seventies. He always had a twinkle in his eye, time to listen, and a ready quip to lighten the mood. One of his favorite responses when asked if anyone was in his office was, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.” It always made me laugh.

I asked him about the phrase one day. All he did was smile and say, “Louis Jordan.” That was my introduction to the man known as the King of the Jukebox.

When it came to music, Louis Jordan knew how to make it swing. He was one of the most influential African American musicians of the late thirties and forties, and he had a knack for creating songs that were so infectious you just had to get up and dance. A pioneer in the rhythm and blues genre and forerunner of early rock and roll, he was also one of the first black artists to cross over on the pop charts, and everyone from Chuck Berry to Ray Charles has acknowledged his impact on their music.

Jordan recorded “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” in 1946 and it became an instant hit, spending seventeen weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart and reaching number six on the pop chart. It’s been covered by James Brown, B.B. King and Patti LuPone, and it is also featured in a musical revue by Clark Peters built to showcase Jordan’s remarkable collection of songs. That revue - Five Guys Named Moe - is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its successful Broadway run in an out-and-out stellar revival at Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles.

The show is directed and choreographed with stylish precision by Keith Young, a former principal dancer with Twyla Tharp’s company in New York. His impressive resume is packed full of film, television and theatre credits including three prior productions at Ebony Rep. This time around his work is streamlined and character-driven, with generous doses of humor thrown in to amplify the fun. He saves the big glitz for Act II’s Five Moes floor show and a whopper of a reveal, but, back to the beginning.

L-R: Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Eric B. Anthony,
Octavius Womack, and Jacques C. Smith

It starts with Obba Babatundé (as Nomax) stumbling home in the wee small hours of the morning after another late night bender, singing the blues to the plaintive sound of a muted trumpet. His girlfriend of sixteen years has finally left him and he’s in serious need of some solid relationship advice. Like many a lonely soul before him, Nomax turns on the radio for a little comfort and company.

That’s when he’s musically whopped up side the head by the five Moes of the title who materialize, as if by magic. Big Moe (Octavius Womack), Little Moe (Trevon Davis), Eat Moe (Eric B. Anthony), Four-Eyed Moe (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), and No Moe (Jacques C. Smith) are determined to help him cast off his lush life and get his girl back, whether he likes it or not. It’s a set-up that paves the way for two hours of tell-it-like-it-is fun where the music is the main attraction and you can’t wait to see what tactic they’ll try next.

As a group, the Moes offer up a tasty blend of vocal harmonies that often blooms out of a verse when you least expect it. As soloists, they exude personality and charm by the bucketfuls, whether it is Womack raising the roof on Jordan’s jump blues crowd pleaser “Caldonia” or Davis getting crazy on “Saturday Night Fish Fry” considered by many to be the first true rock and roll song, or Anthony’s sultry version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” which is enough to break your heart.

Davis’s “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That” would be considered politically incorrect by today’s standards but it is of the era and he sings it with such zeal that you can’t help but laugh. As for the aforementioned novelty song “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” it is a Douglas, Jr. comedy highlight you’ll not soon forget. He plays both ends of the emotional spectrum with ease showing off a gorgeous voice at its finest in the bluesy ballad “Azure Te.”

The longing in the song is multiplied times ten with the addition of scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr’s subtle Paris imagery on an upstage scrim, an effect he uses several times throughout the show to create atmosphere while adding an ethereal quality to the action.

They’re backed by one of the best 6-piece jazz ensembles you’ll hear anywhere, led by original Broadway Five Guys musical director Abdul Hamid Royal, an incredible musical force. By the way, don’t even think about getting up and leaving during the curtain call. Stay for the band’s entire last number after the cast has exited and you’ll see the definition of pure joy as they take over the stage and bring it all home.

Obba Babatundé

So how does an everyman character named Nomax not get lost in a show like this? The key is casting a consummate leading man who can anchor the production and make it look effortless while tapping into a bottomless well. In this case, the soul of the blues and the heart of Five Guys Named Moe belongs to Obba Babatundé. Every note he sings, every ghost of a thought you see flicker across his face is infused with the deep sentiment only time and life can give to an actor. He is a master at his craft and his performance is utterly enthralling.

Nomax may defend his actions and appear cavalier at times but all the justification in the world can’t keep him from his poignant realization in “Is You Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” As Babatundé walks off stage into the dark, he takes a piece of our heart (and understanding) with him.

Summer musicals all strive to get your attention at this time of the year but this bright jukebox musical is the one party you don’t want to miss. For my money, it’s Five Guys Named Moe for the win every single time.

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE
May 18 - June 11, 2017
Ebony Repertory Theatre
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center
4718 West Washington Blvd
Tickets: www.ebonyrep.org

L-R: Jacques C. Smith, Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas, Jr., Eric B. Anthony,
Obba Babatundé, and Octavius Womack

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