In the annals of lyric writing, there is perhaps no single line that more completely expresses the essence of a lover's frustration than the plaintive and fabulously ungrammatical wail "Is you is or is you ain't my baby?" In those few words, hot composer and saxophonist Louis Jordan captured the angst of love along with the vibrant essence of the urban jazz dialect. But that song is just one of many Jordan favorites -- in fact, he had five million-selling hits before 1949 -- and many of them are in the rousing production of Five Guys Named Moe now at Beck Center.
This musical revue's story line by Clarke Peters is scrawny as a Depression-era chicken, tenuously hung on the bare-bones tale of a fellow named No Max, who has recently split with his gal. Lost in his blues and mired in a glass of whiskey, he is visited by five zoot-suited gentlemen who all go by the name of Moe, as in No Moe, Eat Moe, Big Moe, Little Moe, and Four-Eyed Moe. This eponymous quintet (it was actually the name of the band that played with Jordan in the 1920s) proceeds to play The Donald to No Max's apprentice, giving him musical advice on matters relating to pettin', pokin', drinkin', and messin' around.
A couple of the songs are quite familiar, and the lyrics, while dated, still have the power to surprise and amuse. For instance, how many love songs begin with lines such as "Walkin' with my baby, she's got great big feet/She's long, lean, and lanky and ain't had nothing to eat." That's from "Caledonia," which asks the famous chorus question, "What makes your big head so hard?" Another toe-tapper produces an avalanche of lovers' activities that are listed to an infectious beat: "They were stomping & stabbing & grooving & grasping, they kept dancing & ducking, tripping & trucking, potting & pleading & banging & bleeding." And now and then, amid all the frenzy, comes a tender moment, as in "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying."
Dressed in neon hues and eye-popping saddle shoes, these mighty Moes leap from one foot-stomping Jordan jingle to another. And thanks to a high-energy cast and exuberant staging by director-choreographer Martin Cespedes, the show surmounts or simply ignores a few weaknesses to provide a memorable if helium-light evening's entertainment. It doesn't take long to identify the diamond in this cast of lesser gems, since the proceedings begin with Kyle Primous's No Max crooning "Early in the Morning" in a voice so rich with despair that it almost seems otherworldly. Whether he's singing, dancing, or sipping rye, Primous is captivating -- which makes it regrettable that he virtually disappears in the second act.
The other five get their Moe-jo working from the second they pop out of set designer Don McBride's large Philco radio facade and slide into Cespedes's loose and limber dance routines. As Big Moe, Geoffrey Short commands the stage and belts with authority, including the cautionary ditty "Brother Beware." Equally strong is Lawrence Maurice, who uses his sinuous appearance and quirky voice to maximum effect, particularly on the sly ballad "I Know What I've Got" and then dressed in a feathered jacket for the comical "There Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens." No Moe is played by Lester Currie, who also doubles as costume designer, and he sells his songs with unrestrained verve, including the rollicking "Saturday Night Fish Fry." Devon Settles adds humor as the always ravenous Eat Moe, but Aric Calhoun doesn't quite have the chops for Little Moe -- he's half a kick low and half a step slow in the dances, and doesn't fully relish the boffo lyrics in the gloriously un-PC tune "I Like Them Fat Like That!"
Oddly, the one thing this enormously involving show doesn't need is forced participation, yet that's what happens when the cast goes into the audience to form a conga line that bounces up the aisle and back onto the stage. Then later, everything grinds to a halt as three women are dragged onstage for some stilted interaction with Four-Eyed Moe, while the others loiter about, smiling uneasily. This unnecessary side trip slows a ton of Moe-mentum and jerks the show to a dead stop from which it never quite recovers. Here's the rule: If you don't have a performer who can banter off-the-cuff with audience members and be really funny, avoid audience participation -- unless you want it to feel like a cheesy cruise-ship skit. That clunker aside, Five Guys is a swinging good time and a proper tribute to one of the more inventively inspired pop composers of the last century.
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