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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Plenty of Energy in 'Five Guys Named Moe,' Even If the Energy is Uneven

Posted By on Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 8:00 AM

It’s big, flashy and loud. It features six performers who can sing and dance with skill. And it presents a whole bunch of songs by Louis Jordan, the renowned hit-maker and sax star from the 1930s to the early ‘50s. Plus, critics like this show because they can drag out all their tired “Moe” puns, But Moe about that later.

So, what’s not to like? Well, if you’re an energy junkie this is your show. As the five Moe’s emerge from a radio to help sad-sack alcoholic named Nomax find his way in life, they kick into a galaxy of songs and patter that has the basic sound of that African-American R&B kingpin Jordan .

In this co-production between the Cleveland Play House and Arena Stage, many of the songs have been reimagined by music director Darryl Ivey into a contemporary boy band groove. That will please some and distress others who loved the original groove just fine.

The original conceit is still in place, as poor, downtrodden Nomax laments his life, his lost girlfriend, and seeks comfort in a bottle of whiskey. At his low point, the five Moes show up to sing him out of his blues. This storyline by Clarke Peters is thinner than a Motel 6 bath towel, but it serves to set up one song after another.

While granting director Robert O’Hara and Ivey their absolute right to retool this 1990 show, it is still incumbent on the production to bring more than a workmanlike energy to the stage. After a startlingly powerful rendition of “Early in the Morning” by Kevin McAllister as Nomax, the show quickly hits an air pocket when Sheldon Henry as Big Moe essentially walks through the juicy ditty “Beware, Brother, Beware,” missing much of its humor.

From there on, the show works in fits and starts. As No Moe, Johari Parker-Namdar has oleaginous charm and grinds a half-pound of coffee with his swivel hips on “Messy Bessy,” while Clinton Roane as Little Moe could still have a lot more nasty fun with “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That.” Four-Eyed Moe (Travis Porchia) screeches, mostly unintelligibly, through “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” but Paris Nix as Eat Moe sings and steps with style, then delivers a nice version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”

These fellows certainly have the singing and dancing chops to do what this show requires: present five distinctive and interesting Moe characters that each influence Nomax in a unique and entertaining manner.

God knows, the material is there, with witty songs such as “Safe, Sane and Single,” “Caledonia,” and “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (If You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again).” And the set is certainly working hard to do its part, with blinking staircases and a gigantic backlit “MOE” sign that never changes, whether they’re in the Funky Butt Club or not.

Clearly, we have to put up with the corny audience participation conga line (hey, I’m white and if I never see another average white person dance in a conga line again, it’ll be too soon).

But if you like your funk on the hoof, these six guys have Moe than enough for you.

Five Guys Named Moe
Through February 15 , at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

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