A man staggers onto the stage at Arena’s Kreeger Theater. Nomax, played with deep loss by Kevin McAllister, has offended his girl with yet another drunken night. He sings “Early in the Morning,” an emotionally riveting blues number by Louis Jordan, Leo Hickman, and Dallas Bartley. The audience fills with pathos, beautiful and heartfelt pains of love lost, and a life going nowhere.
As Nomax lies down by his radio, his girlfriend gone while images of a crowded tenement flash on the projection screen behind him, he shouts at an upstairs neighbor that it’s his room and he’ll sing if he wants to. Lights fade.
Suddenly, the screen rises, colored lights flash, and the world transforms to the glitter and pink of the Funky Butt Club and their tribute band, Five Guys Named Moe. They are about to sing the wildly popular crossover hits of Louis Jordan and his band.
From there on out, Nomax and the Kreeger audience are offered an exuberant musical elixir guaranteed to heal the blues and any other love-pains you might be having. It’s song, it’s dance, it’s tap dancing syncopation and fascination Las Vegas style.
By the end of the evening not only has the poor tenement dreamer Nomax put on his best black suit, called his girl on the phone, made amends, and is about to rock the night away, but everyone in the audience is hoping that their worst nightmares will soon be flying the coup by the same route.
Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five band rose to prominence during the 1940s with “jump blues,” an up-tempo, dance-inspiring music that Jordan filled with memorable catchy, comedic lyrics.
What Director Robert O’Hara offers at Arena is not a re-creation of that 40’s musical sensation, but an updated tribute to its popular rhythms. The style of the original remains intact but the sound is as fresh as today’s jukebox. Let’s say BlueRay or iTunes.
The storyline of this revue-style musical could not be more basic. Nomax’s hallucination, the Five Guys tribute band, have come to rescue him from a blues-inducing alcoholism that has all but destroyed his life. The twelve-step program has been replaced by a 25-song regiment of get-off-your-butt and laugh-a-lot music.
The littlest Moe, nicknamed Little Moe, played with big energy by Clinton Roane, has one of the first high liveliness comic numbers, Louis Jordan and Claude Demetriou’s “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That.” By the end of the number I’ve forgotten my own extra pounds and aching feet and am ready to boogie.
No Moe, played by a high styling Jobari Parker-Namdar, immediately takes us to another kind of woman in Jon Henricks’ “Messy Bessy.” Apparently, Bessy gets messy when she’s been drinking. Louis sings:
Now I’m a very conservative fella,
and I don’t go in for displays of emotion,
but I’m in love with a chick named Bessy,
and she cuts up whenever she takes the notion.
So when Bessy gets to drinking he says to her:
Don’t get messy, Bessy,
keep your whiskey quiet,
when you had a couple of drinks, woman,
you just might start a riot,
don’t get messy, Bessy,
you know what I’m talking about,
when your love comes a tumblin’ down,
you wear a good man out.
The Moe with the highest metabolism, Eat Moe, played by the exuberant Paris Nix, leads the group in “Life is So Peculiar” (lyrics by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen).
When I get out to dinner, there’s nothing to wear but clothes),
Whenever I get sleepy, there’s nothing to do but doze,
Whenever I get thirsty, there’s nothing to do but drink,
Life is so peculiar that it makes you stop and think,
Ironically, those lyrics really do make you stop and think.
Big Moe, played by Dance Captain Sheldon Henry–who’s also one helluva tap dancer–leads us into Act II, where despite all the band’s hard work poor Nomax is drinking more than ever. He sings with Nomax Bubsy Meyers’ “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again).” By the end of it, Nomax makes an effort and has put the bottle away. Also, Big Moe’s high performance rendition of the call and response “Caldonia” (Fleecie Moore) has the audience moving and shaking in their seats.
One of the funniest songs of the evening is performed by Four-Eyed Moe, played by the agile Travis Porchia. He gives “Look Out Sister” (Sid Robbin and Louis Jordan) an old, reformed player persona and has the audience totally engrossed in his advice to the ladies on how to recognize “a dog” when you see one.
If you are looking for something more than an evening of escape from those blues, then Arena’s Five Guys Named Moe is not the show for you. For this evening out is all about the music, the dancing, and the dreams that such excellence inspires. And sometimes that’s just what the doctor orders.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.
Five Guys Named Moe plays through December 28, 2014 at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 6th St SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.
Louis Jordan’s website.