Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Oct. 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Court Theatre is kicking off its 63rd season on a very high note with an infectiously joyous “Five Guys Named Moe,” Clarke Peters’ celebration of saxophonist, songwriter, and band leader Louis Jordan. The premise of the musical revue is a bit thin, and so is some of the patter, but the performances are phenomenal, as are the production values.
First produced in London’s West End in 1990 and then on Broadway, the show brings together more than two-dozen hits by Jordan, whose heyday was in the 1940s (at South Side clubs, among other places) and whose “jump blues” paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll. The songs include “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Caldonia,” “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie,” and of course the title number (recorded in 1942). While many of them look at the fraught relations between men and women—for example, “Beware, Brother, Beware,” “I Like “Em Fat Like That,” “Messy Bessy,” and “Look Out, Sister”–it’s almost always with a sense of humor and an emphasis on fun. And if several come across as misogynistic, the script is self-conscious enough to acknowledge what it calls Jordan’s “chauvinism.”
Peters’ conceit starts with a young man, Nomax (Stephen “Blu” Allen), whose woman has left him, leading him to drink and listen to the blues on his big console radio into the wee hours of the morning. All of a sudden the radio starts talking back and out pop the five Moes: Eat Moe (James Earl Jones II), No Moe (Eric A. Lewis), Little Moe (Darrian Ford), Four Eyed Moe (Kelvin Roston Jr.), and Big Moe (Lorenzo Rush Jr.). Their mission is to drag Nomax out of his funk, set him straight about some of life’s fundamentals, help him decide what to do about his woman, and prepare him to accompany them to the cabaret for their act (though the plot gets murky here).
This is Ron OJ Parson’s first time directing a musical, and he does a canny job of capturing the spirit of Jordan and the period with the help of associate director Felicia P. Fields, a veteran musical theater performer. She apparently assembled the marvelous onstage band led by pianist Abdul Hamid Royal, who also is the music director, as he was for the Broadway incarnation. His feel for the harmonics and how the songs should sound is spot on, and it’s a real pleasure to not have to listen to singing that’s too loud, with one big crescendo after another, and the other ills of so many modern musicals.
Lots of credit also goes to the irrepressible Moes, who seem to be having a ball, not only when they’re instructing Nomax, but also when they are enlisting audience participation, as for the calypso sing-along “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie” culminating in a conga line out to the lobby bar for intermission. The men all have beautiful voices, very different from each other, and they dance up a storm—particularly Ford’s Little Moe. No choreographer is listed, though Christopher Carter was responsible for “movement/musical staging.” Allen’s sad-sack Nomax is a winner, too, and undergoes a fairly convincing transformation.
Courtney O’Neill’s stylish scenic design essentially is a giant Art Deco radio, only it’s facing away from us, so we’re looking at the inside complete with tubes, resistors, and cables. The musicians are nestled among them, and the front nicely morphs into the cabaret stage. Heather Gilbert’s lighting heightens the effects as needed. Michael Allen Stein’s 1940s costumes for the Moes are individually distinctive and impeccably detailed, and yet there’s an aura of heightened reality, as if the men could be figments of Nomax’s imagination. He, in turn, is in casual modern clothes, highlighting the distinction between them.
On opening night, some of the dialogue got lost, but I don’t know if Victoria Deiorio’s sound design was to blame.
“Five Guys Named Moe” is definitely worth seeing, but I suspect different people will enjoy different aspects of it. Some will get a kick out of the rollicking humor and antics of the Moes, particularly Rush’s surprisingly graceful Big Moe. Others will prefer the songs. For me, Jones II’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” alone was worth the price of admission.