The sight of two dozen matinee ladies, and one gentleman, dancing with the cast in a conga line on stage makes it hard to deny that "Five Guys Named Moe," which opened yesterday at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, puts the spring back in Louis Jordan's jump blues.
Created by Clarke Peters and directed and choreographed by Charles Augins, this celebration of the late Jordan's music began as a little revue in a London fringe theater in 1990. Mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh saw it and decided to produce it, first on London's West End, where it is still running, and then on Broadway.
Part of the show's success can be attributed to the fact that, although Mackintosh is known for such spectacles as "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom of the Opera," he allowed "Five Guys" to retain its modest dimensions. And while the production would probably work best in a cabaret setting, its six actors and six on-stage band members fill the Mechanic with a wallop of exuberance.
Featuring three Broadway cast members (Doug Eskew, Milton Craig Nealy and Jeffrey Polk), this road production is every bit as polished as its New York predecessor. The thin plot -- the show has been described by Peters as a "revusical" -- focuses on a character named Nomax (Kirk Taylor), whose girlfriend has just dumped him. He is drowning his sorrows in liquor and listening to Jordan's music on the radio when the five Moes show up to offer advice.
The story line is mostly an excuse to perform the songs of Louis Jordan, a band leader and saxophone player whose music was a precursor of rock and roll. The first of these songs, "Early in the Morning," is sung by smooth, bluesy-voiced Taylor. However, he's soon relegated to the sidelines by the pizazz of the Moes, each of whom has at least one number in the spotlight.
Polk's Little Moe performs "I Like 'Em Fat Like That" with a voice -- as well as comical body language -- that far exceeds his small stature. Keith Tyrone's low-key No Moe shows his humorous side in "Messy Bessy" -- an attempt to instruct Nomax in the secrets of maintaining a long-term relationship KevynBrackett, as Eat Moe, unleashes some show-stopping, acrobatic tap dancing in "Reet, Petite and Gone."
As good-natured Big Moe, Eskew is in his crowd-rousing top form in the audience-response number, "Caldonia." And, near the end of the show, Nealy's versatile Four-Eyed Moe brings three women from the audience on stage, and, as an apology for the show's earlier chauvinistic songs, launches into a mile-a-minute patter rendition of "Look Out, Sister."
The true gloss of the production, however, is showcased in numbers such as the title song, in which all five Moes demonstrate their close harmony and tightly synchronized choreography. They are accompanied by an equally slick band, under the direction of Reginald Royal.
As for that conga line, it shows up just before intermission. On Broadway, its unabashedly commercial destination was a restaurant called "Moe's," which the producer set up next door. On the road, "Five Guys Named Moe" is free of such crass huckstering and is more agreeably ingratiating because of it. In fact, the show is so infectiously cheerful that even non-dancers may find themselves tapping their feet.
(Audio-described performances Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.; sign-interpreted performances Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 2 p.m.)
"Five Guys Named Moe"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Dec. 12 and 26 at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. No performance Dec. 24. Through Jan. 2
Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407