"Five Guys Named Moe" is based on the hits of Louis Jordan, a sax player, bandleader, singer and sometime lyricist and composer who is considered one of the forerunners of rock. As a composer he reached his apex with the immortal "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"
Unlike Fats Waller or Duke Ellington, whose own music inspired "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Sophisticated Ladies," Jordan was associated with music of very little range or sophistication. The music is simple, the lyrics banal (with the possible exception of "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens" and, of course, the sublime "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?").
Nor did Jordan come from the grand traditions of black entertainment that were so eloquently re-created in "Black and Blue." He led dance bands and made records that were mainly meant to be danced to.
As a result there's not much point to making a theater piece out of his music. The truth of this is apparent in "Five Guys Named Moe."
The musical Clarke Peters has fashioned out of these materials and that Charles Augins has choreographed and directed is a monotonously high-spirited evening. Most of the songs are "up" numbers. Because the beat is so inflexible, there's not really much a choreographer can do. Augins has come up with zippy steps and movements that must be repeated over and over. They don't develop into anything since the music doesn't either.
There is very little instrumental playing of any interest - the music is too thin to inspire great riffs. The few slow numbers are not strong enough to deepen the mood.
A good 10 minutes is spent teaching the audience to sing "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie" (one of the songs for which Jordan wrote the lyrics), after which the cast leads the audience in a conga line to the bar. What is billed as a 20-minute intermission runs closer to 30. Though the drinks are not free, I noted a lot more clapping along with the music after the intermission.
The cast of six performs with irrepressible energy and verve. They have rich, mellow voices, nimble feet, no apparent joints and an infectious enthusiasm for their work. You keep wishing their abundant talent could be applied to music of greater interest (though, of course, they do handsomely by the harmonies of the ineffable "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?").
Splashily designed, brightly paced, "Moe" brought great cheer to the audience the night I saw it.
With a conga line that leads the intermission into the bar next door, and with sectional audiences out-vying one another in sing-alongs, the Clarke Peters' musical "Five Guys Named Moe," which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre last night, is certainly heavy on audience participation. And energy.
In fact, it has more energy than originality, or, to put it bluntly, more perspiration than inspiration. Yet these Five Guys, with their Louis Jordan-inspired music, are so cool that they could well become hot. While the show itself, unpretentious and energetic, is so good-natured and high-spirited that it seems mean to point out the basic banality of the material.
Peters - a Harlem-born Londoner - grew to love Jordan's spin on music during the '40s, and has now succeeded in bringing this interesting link between the big bands and the rhythm and blues, and later rock 'n' roll, styles that first transfigured and then transfixed pop music during the '50s.
Suspecting that Jordan's time had probably come round again, Peters - who had appeared in the London production of "Bubblin' Brown Sugar" - devised a small-scale revue concept that owed something to "Brown Sugar" and even more to that show's predecessor "Ain't Misbehavin'." The results opened in a fringe London theater, was seen by mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh and the rest is bankable.
The thin sliver of a theme concerns a young man, Nomax, deserted by his girlfriend, disconsolately sitting around in the wee small hours taking in hard liquor and soft music, when his bleary reveries are interrupted by, of course, the images of these Five Guys named Moe, who proceed, very gently, to set him to rights on the subjects of love, women and life.
Well, as a story it doesn't match up to "Oklahoma!" - heck, it doesn't even match up to "Miss Saigon" - but no one is counting, and audiences out for a good time, particularly if determined about it, should warm to the show's sheer and innocent zest.
It is helped by the slick, glossy-smooth staging by the director/choreographer Charles Augins who does a terrific job, not to mention the charming vocal arrangements by Chapman Roberts and the properly glitzy (if over-amplified) orchestrations by Neil McArthur, featuring Reginald Royal's splendidly swinging seven-piece band.
But all the production values are unobtrusively classy - including Tim Goodchild's designing, even if elements of his permanent set are so reminiscent of Jo Mielziner's famous set for the ballet "Who Cares?" that coincidence seems pressing the frontiers of plagiarism - and the cast is classiest of all.
Most of them are seasoned Broadway performers, and with Jerry Dixon as the bemused radio dreamer, and Doug Eskew, Milton Craig Nealy, Kevin Ramsey, Jeffrey D. Sams and Glenn Turner as the five eponymous Moes, the singing and dancing (boy, how these guys work!) pick up the show bodily and run with it.
This is certainly not the most original musical on Broadway, but it's easy on the mind, and foot-tappin', hand-clappin' undemanding entertainment for people demanding to be undemandingly entertained. And if you want to sing at the top of your voice: "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie - Eh Eh Push Ka Pi Shie Pie - Eh Eh Oobli - Aayee Eyeyay Abia" - this, but don't quote me here, could be just what the doctor ordered.
Some Broadway musicals want to make you think. Some want to move you to tears. Some want to make you laugh. Some want to give you pure, mindless fun.
"Five Guys Named Moe," the London hit that opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night, wants to sell you a drink.
This peculiar revue, ostensibly a celebration of songs made famous by the 1940's alto saxophone player and band leader Louis Jordan, has a specially designed restaurant called Moe's adjoining its auditorium, where you can eat, drink and be merry before, during or after the show -- most notably during an extended intermission, when several extra bars are set up for your pleasure. If the management could only deliver alcohol intravenously, "Five Guys Named Moe" might actually convince its patrons that the joint is jumping at those moments when there is no option other than to watch the entertainment onstage.
That entertainment is unlikely to be confused by many New York audiences with this production's obvious prototypes, "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "One Mo' Time," with which it shares its cast size, nostalgic musical ambitions and intended saloon ambiance. "Five Guys" is instead a British tourist's view of a patch of black American pop music history when Jordan (1908-1975) and his Tympany Five served as a crossover from post-World War II jump and boogie to mid-1950's rhythm-and-blues with hits like "Choo, Choo Ch'boogie," "Caldonia" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry." Given that the show's creators are both American-born black men -- Clarke Peters (book) and Charles Augins (direction and choreography) -- the evening's synthetic tone is most surprising.
Perhaps the problem is that Mr. Peters and Mr. Augins have spent too much time in London (most of their careers, according to the Playbill). Or perhaps they have inflated or mutilated innocent original intentions in recruiting a new cast and restaging this piece for Broadway. I cannot say, since I did not see the London edition, which began at a theater half the size of the O'Neill before moving to the West End. Whatever the explanation, something has gone seriously, discomfortingly wrong.
The six men in the Broadway cast have decent voices. But they are asked to smile incessantly, and their musical delivery is so monotonously cheery (except in ballads, where completely expressionless crooning reigns) that their stage personalities are distinguishable only by such character names as Big Moe, Little Moe and Four-Eyed Moe. This was hardly the case at a show like "Ain't Misbehavin'," where each voice was an instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic original. In "Five Guys," the goal seems to be a lowest-common-denominator, easy-listening, emotion-free version of the songs, and that impression is heightened by an onstage band that even Doc Severinsen might find lacking in funk.
"Five Guys" is closer to Shaftesbury Avenue than 52d Street in other ways as well. The set, by Tim Goodchild, is a candied affair that looks like a Claymation version of a Harlem street scene. The modest choreography rips off the broad gestures of a jazz style -- raised arms, shaking shoulders, finger snapping -- without delivering much actual dancing. The humor is deeply British, male division: if the men aren't sashaying about in drag, they are dressing up in chicken feathers for "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens." Further sexist humor and racial stereotyping comes from the book, a shameless bit of padding about the travails of a present-day lovesick swain (Jerry Dixon, with his belt unbuckled) whose blues are chased away by the five Moes once they burst out of his radio in a puff of smoke.
Stage smoke is a mainstay of British musicals, and so is the evening's dependence on a Disneyland theatrical gimmick and party-or-die audience participation. Moe's restaurant, which looks more like a chain franchise in a mall than an urban jazz club Louis Jordan might recognize, serves the same purpose for "Five Guys" as the feline junkyard of "Cats" and the roller-skating rink of "Starlight Express." And as with "Cats" at intermission, the audience is invited onstage just before this show's intermission, in this case to participate in a mass conga line prompted by the incessant calypso "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie."
In fairness, I must report that many people, conspicuously including the former "Miss Saigon" star Jonathan Pryce, enthusiastically joined the conga line at the press performance I attended. I am sure, though I cannot prove it, that some participants in this spontaneous demonstration were not past or present employees of the "Five Guys Named Moe" producer, Cameron Mackintosh.
As the conga line heats up, one member of the cast yells out "Don't forget your pocketbooks!," surely the most heartfelt dialogue of the evening. That's the cue for the conga line to turn toward the bar, where those who empty their pocketbooks will be rewarded with the good news that they can take their drinks back to their seats.