The best musicals not only highlight compelling material and music, but commemorate a historically significant past. Often times, much of history’s figures are underrated, and from a musical standpoint, few fit this criteria more than Louis Jordan, who was “The King of the Jukebox.” For about a 15-year period, ending in the 1950s, Jordan was a forerunner of several genres, including jazz, swing, blues, and R&B.
“Five Guys Named Moe,” which debuted on Broadway in 1992, is a musical that spotlights many of Jordan’s hits, paying tribute to an era that was simpler, more innocent, and unabashedly jocular. It’s fitting, then, that the show’s 25th anniversary is being celebrated by the Ebony Repertory Theatre at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, Calif., through June 11th. The theatre’s producing artistic director/founder, Wren T. Brown, in tandem with director/choreographer Keith Young, have put together perhaps the best rendition of this production, and unequivocally Southern California’s most enduring show of the year.
Young has brought the absolute best out of six men, who already brimmed with the highest caliber of talent, cultivating a show that features maximum energy, vim, vigor, and a rapturous conviviality that takes place over 105-minutes (including intermission). Led by Emmy award-winner Obba Babatundé, along with Eric B. Anthony, Trevon Davis, Rogelio Douglas, Jr., Jacques C. Smith, and Octavius Womack, there is never a lull, nor a break, in this non-stop sprint. It leaves you feeling satisfyingly exhausted, as you whoop, clap your hands, and dance in the aisles with its indefatigable cast.
Film, TV, and stage veteran Obba Babatundé plays the lead, Nomax, who is taken on a surreal ride by five guys of a similar name, but a dissimilar disposition. They appear in his dream to provide support, guiding him by playing both best friend and devil’s advocate. Nomax is a habitual drinker, who is more or less teetering on the brink of spiritual collapse when his girlfriend, Lorraine, leaves him after 16 years; but, it is the wisdom and measured poignancy of the Moes’ words and lyrics that widen Nomax’s perspective insofar as he doesn’t take what he has for granted any longer.
Babatundé’s performance is like watching a master ply his craft. He is able to apply just the right amount of reluctance to his character’s refusal to be initially influenced by the Moes, which serves as the perfect push to the Moes pull – and this polar dynamic is what drives the musical. In one scene where he is getting a hair cut, Nomax balks at what the Moes are trying to impress upon him, and Babatundé thus effortlessly conveys this annoyance before his lines do (“you’re really starting to piss me off”), using precise facial expressions. In addition to his charming dance moves, Babatundé also demonstrates a very underrated singing ability that is infused with an affecting emotion, beginning with the production’s first number, “Early in the Morning,” and culminating with the hard realization communicated in “I Know What I’ve Got.”
As Eat Moe, Eric B. Anthony is the benchmark of infectious energy and multifaceted skill across the board. His character, as his name suggests, is perpetually hungry – a running joke that pays off with several laughs. Of course, Anthony’s comedic timing is balanced by his relentless movement on stage that always manages to look very ordered and seamless. To go at his uncanny speed and never seem to tire is a testament to his elite versatility, which also manifests in the form of rousing tap-dancing (in a dance-off with Rogelio Douglas, Jr.’s Four Eyed Moe amid “Let the Good Times Roll”), and during “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” when Anthony sings with impressive emotionality.
Rogelio Douglas, Jr., who exudes charisma with every turn and step, is similarly a joy to watch as Four Eyed Moe. Just when we think he can’t top the powerfully sung “Azure Te” in Act I — which also underscores the effective stage projection-mapping design by Edward E. Haynes, Jr. with a delineation of the Eiffel Tower – he shows off his countertenor prowess as a sassy female chicken (“Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”) in Act II. Awe-inspiringly, this is then followed by Douglas, Jr. disarmingly and suavely winning over the ladies in the audience with “Look Out, Sister.”
As Little Moe, Trevon Davis epitomizes what it means to be a smooth operator whose character is not embarrassed about admitting, “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That.” Davis is, moreover, remarkable at getting across his character’s assured panache, which is helped by the performer’s euphonious singing capacity that is extremely well-suited for R&B. This is particularly apparent during “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” when Davis is confidently leading the proceedings on stage like a frontman in full control.
Jacques C. Smith, who portrays No Moe, leaves a terrific impression that cannot be overlooked. He carries himself with a sense of poise, polish, and professionalism that makes everyone around him better. In a way, he’s like the point guard of the five Moes, watching out for pratfalls, calling the plays, and assisting on points made. At the same time, when he’s in the spotlight (e.g., “Messy Bessy”), he commands absolute attention with a robust voice.
Octavius Womack is Big Moe – a character that is memorable for the sheer force of will that Womack puts into it. Womack earns the respect of every attendee by imbuing Big Moe with a witty personableness and firepower that transfixes and elicits fabulous reactions. This is especially notable during the song “Caldonia” at Club Alabam (another instance of a fantastic set design) when he gets the crowd to raise their arms and shout “what” and “mop” in unison as if it were a concert – an example of the interactivity between the crowd and the performers that positively distinguishes this musical from its counterparts.
Needless to say, any great musical requires a top-notch band that plays with passion and urgency. Led by musical director Abdul Hamid Royal (piano), musicians Louis Van Taylor (saxophone/clarinet), Christopher Gray (trumpet), Chris Johnson (trombone), Land Richards (drums), and Ian Seck (bass) galvanize the audience with their rallying sounds, and are rightfully given their just due at the start of Act II and at the close of the show.
Indeed, this band and its six stars bring “Five Guys Named Moe” to life with a showmanship that is backed by indisputable flair and facility. Their vitality never flags and, in actuality, though they are all individually recognized, their talents coalesce to become stronger as the musical moves along. On one hand, the performers are able to get the audience pumped to sing along to “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie,” and then do a 180-degree turn and harmonize beautifully while singing the dramatic “Is You is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” The diverse range of sentiments that are evoked thus contribute to how alive and animated one feels when experiencing this energizing production by the Ebony Repertory Theatre. For this reason, the musical is enjoyed at an all-encompassing level, making it the most excitement anyone will have at the theatre this year.
For more information about “Five Guys Named Moe,” please visit ebonyrep.org