WASHINGTON, December 13, 2014 – Such is the drawing power of DC’s preeminent theater company that Clarke Peters himself would bless the opening of “Five Guys Named Moe” with his presence at Arena Stage. It was, after, this show’s book by Clarke Peters and its lyrics and music by Louis Jordan that launched its successful original Broadway.
“This is music for us to enjoy, every song has a story and small scenario to tell,” says Peters. “This is another generation of ‘Five Guys’ and it’s easy to put it together, but I didn’t expect to see it this century. It’s good that it is because it is introducing a new generation to Jordan’s music. It reminds me of my youth, or even my parent’s youth,” Peters noted as he reminisced about his role in creating the show’s historic Broadway run over 20 years ago.
The show opened on April 8, 1992 at New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre and ran for 19 previews and 445 performances over a two-year stretch, fully 40 years after Jordan, the pioneering American musician, songwriter and bandleader, reached the height of his fame.
The Broadway musical was based on an eponymous musical short penned by Jordan himself back in 1943. The current show actually opened in 1990 in the UK’s Theatre Royal Stratford East and continued to play in that country even as it opened in New York back in 1992.
The current production at Arena is only scheduled to run through December 28. The Arena production is a good show. But in this reviewer’s opinion, this edition missed a teaching moment—an opportunity to re-introduce Jordan’s magical energy and historic significance as one of the first black crossover artists, a significant figure who actually helped pave the way for rock and roll.
Arena’s “Five Guys” certainly delivers the show’s raw energy. As first time music director Robert O’Hara declares, “We’re in the age of Beyoncé, JayZ and Justin Timberlake, so it’s not going to be soft, it’s going to be loud and in your face, it’s going to be sexy and fun.” And that, it is.
The problem, though, is that sexy, superficial entertainment doesn’t necessarily translate into a valuable night at the theater.
Ramos and O’Hara previously teamed at Arena with last year’s successful production of “Mountaintop.” But this time, there seems to be a disconnect after the show’s visuals shift to the dual stairway to the stars motif and purple arches partially concealing the six piece passive band in the background.
This setting doesn’t compliment the dynamic energy that the dancers generate for the majority of the first act’s brief 40-minute sprint through nine numbers before an audience- engaging conga line that pumped up the crowd before intermission.
The current production gets off to a promising start, as Nomax—nicely portrayed by Arena newcomer Kevin McAllister—the down-and-out loser whose girlfriend Lorraine has left him broke and broken-hearted, opens the show with a knock down version of “Early in the Morning.” He bursts out in song on the imagined back porch of Chicago tenement stoop even as he nurses a hangover.
Nomax is quickly brought back to reality, however, by the noisy shouts of his irritated neighbors who quickly put their neighbor on notice that his drunken stupor and loud jukebox music is too much for them this early in the morning.
Designer Clint Ramos’ sets enhance the neighborhood setting. They convey the historical context of the show, further boosting the imagery by superimposing a giant graphic backdrop of a big city slum across the substantial Kreeger stage area.
Making his Arena Stage debut as Nomax, Kevin McAllister delivers a powerful blues motif that sets up the high energy contrast among five cats named Moe—Big Moe, Four-Eyed Moe, Eat Moe, No Moe, and Little Moe—all of whom emerge from his 1930s-style radio to comfort him.
(Below: Arena’s “teaser-trailer” for “Five Guys,” via YouTube.)
Howard University BFA grad Clinton Roane as Little Moe and Philly native Paris Nix as Eat Moe distinguished themselves as the best blend of voice and movement masters with Travis Porchia as Four-Eyed Moe flashing a high degree of personality and presence in his cool aviator shades and garish purple paisley tux that seemed to emerge right out of a chitlin circuit juke joint.
Native New Yorker Sheldon Henry as Big Moe, and local favorite and Strathmore artist-in-residence Jobari Parker-Namdar as No Moe are no slouches either.
Each Moe has an opportunity to either solo or carry a key message tune on a variety of topics, like the salacious preference for super-sized women from Little Moe’s bump and grind obsession with plus-size lovers, “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That”; to No Moe’s warning about “Messy Bessy.”
That missed teachable moment we mentioned earlier? Younger viewers and other audience members not familiar with Jordan’s work don’t really get to encounter the whys and wherefores of his musical and cultural influence.
Songwriter and saxophonist Louis Jordan was a major figure who paved the way for rock and roll and its dramatic emergence in the 1950s. In a moment of unfiltered truth towards the end of his life, Jordan was quoted as saying, “that rock and roll music was nothing but rhythm and blues music played by a white band.”
Jordan released dozens of hit songs in the 40s, including the swinging “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” which was considered one of the earliest and most powerful contenders for the title of first rock and roll record, as well as the comic classic “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Buzz Me,” “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)” and the multi-million seller “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”.
Jordan also had a key role in introducing black hipster slang during the 1940s, including the use of “chick” to describe a fast woman and “rock,” which was a code word for knocking boots back in the day.
That latter word entered the popular mainstream lexicon, quickly adopted by a determined, enthusiastic crossover audience of white hipsters. They loved black juke joint music and the strong sexual themes and risqué movement of the original bump and grind dancers and show girls. All these were part of the sensual attraction generated by Jordan and his music, both precursors to modern rock and roll.
Unfortunately, O’Hara’s contemporary concept for “Five Guys” also missed a golden educational opportunity during the transition to the second act’s Funky Butt Club cabaret. Jordan’s most popular and universally recognized numbers, dating from his manic five man “Tympany Five” band period in the 1940s gained such a high level of commercial success that they almost singlehandedly put big bands out of business as that decade advanced.
During the height of his success Jordan scored more than a dozen songs on the national charts. His Tympany Five dominated the 1940s R&B charts, or as they were known at the time, the “race” charts, much as Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard dominated the Negro League baseball circuit.
Jordan charted a staggering eighteen No. 1 singles and fifty-four Top Ten songs. Nomax introduces one of these early in the second act. “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)” soon became Jordan’s first No. 1 hit, reaching the top of the Harlem Hit Parade in December, 1942.
To this day Louis Jordan still ranks as the top black recording artist of all time in terms of the total number of weeks at #1—his records scored an incredible total of 113 weeks in the No. 1 position.
Can you imagine Stevie Wonder with his 70 weeks chart record being a distant second to Jordan? From July 1946 through May 1947, Jordan scored five consecutive No. 1 songs, holding the top slot for 44 consecutive weeks. Today, uninformed pop music critics call Michael Jackson the “King of Pop,” failing to cite or even recognize Jordan’s legitimate props from a bygone era that Clarke Peters accurately described as our parents’ coming of age. Do today’s music pundits even know anything about pop music BE (Before Elvis)?
Unfortunately, in this show, all of these hits from the Tympany Five era, along with Jordan’s biggest and best known song, “Caldonia”— with its energetic screaming punchline, “Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?”—were simply rolled up in the eight-number second act without much in the way of context.
(The 1946 video below features Jordan & Co. seriously rocking “Caldonia.” The film quality is poor and the opening string intro is misleading. But when Jordan and the band start playing, you’ll immediately discover where rock and roll has its roots.)
At least this scenario featured the inspired work of Costume Designer Dede Ayite who rolled out all Five Guys in white dinner jackets and matching black and white spats—the latter being shortly replaced by silver tap shoes as Moes one thru five smoothly transitioned into a cabaret sequence and “Let the Good Times Roll.”
But what a wonderful touch it would have been to introduce an historical footnote at this point about the genius behind the music, perhaps by flashing an image of a hysterically animated performer and saxophone player, as was done in Arena’s spectacular production of “Sophisticated Lady” at the Lincoln Theater in that production’s visual tribute to Duke Ellington.
After “Caldonia,” Jordan’s next major side, the comical call-and response number “Five Guys Named Moe,” was one of the very first recordings to solidify the fast-paced, swinging R&B style that became the Jordan trademark. Soon, it, too, struck a chord with audiences, reaching No. 3 on the race charts in September 1943.
This was the tune that was later taken as the title of “Five Guys Named Moe,” that long-running Broadway stage show that paid tribute to Jordan and his music, joyously celebrating the ups and downs of black urban life and infused with raunchy good humor and a driving musical energy that had a massive and direct influence on the development of rock and roll.
Despite the missed teachable moment of black musical history, I still must give “Five Guys Named Moe” a solid three stars out of four as the Christmas shopping season shifts into high gear.
Despite its flaws—particularly that lamentable lack of historical context—the Arena’s current edition of this show is a high energy, 1000 watt personality-driven performance delivered by six polished performers. They deliver more than a dozen memorable musical moments. But their considerable skills may be overshadowed at times by the loud, in-your-face contemporary spin of a first time director who might be better suited to directing a different kind of show.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
“Five Guys Named Moe.” Tu-Sun at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through December 28, 2014. 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $40 – $99
Below: The FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE cast, director and creative team at Arena Stage’s sugary sweet after party.