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Theater Reviews : ‘Five Guys Named Moe': Thin Book, Huge Party

TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

The program calls it a musical party and if “Five Guys Named Moe” is anything, it’s that: a big party with conga lines, sing-alongs and enough high spirits to send a small rocket into orbit.

But this joint presentation of Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson in association with producer Cameron Mackintosh, which opened Thursday at the James A. Doolittle Theatre, is also a sleek, notably thin little show for its two-hour-plus length, based on the slenderest, most superfluous premise.

A lonely guy named Nomax (Kirk Taylor) is drinking in his room in the wee hours, moping and listening to the radio, when out of that radio pop . . . five guys named Moe. They are Big Moe (Doug Eskew), No Moe (Keith Tyrone), Little Moe (Jeffrey Polk), Four-Eyed Moe (Milton Craig Nealy) and Eat Moe (Kevyn Brackett) and they’re determined to show Nomax the error of his ways--and show the audience a good time.

A little too determined. If the guys playing those Moes were any less talented you might even resent all the huffing and puffing. But this Clarke Peters musical is put together from the musical hits of the late, irrepressible Louis Jordan, and no matter how much you differ with the interpretation those hits are given here--and you may differ a lot --there’s not too far to fall when you’re dealing with such hot stuff and certainly no time to worry about it while the show is roaring along.

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The Moes see to that, especially Eskew’s Big Moe, who most closely resembles the real Jordan and for whom big also means vocally big. His high-pitched “Caldonia” is a highlight. Nealy’s Four-Eyed Moe is the program’s most genial host, Brackett’s Eat Moe its best dancer (with a splashy tap solo), while Tyrone’s and Polk’s No Moe and Little Moe, respectively, happily bring up the rear.

Neil McArthur’s souped-up orchestrations and the sometimes overblown, sometimes merely curious choices of director-choreographer Charles Augins, combined with Chapman Roberts’ vocal arrangements and Reginald Royal’s music direction, seem more dedicated to making the show a noisy party than to letting the ebullient Jordan music sing for itself.

Purists may be plenty bothered by the interpretation of such hits as “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t Ma’ Baby” (quiet), “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” (overdressed) or the short shrift given to “What’s the Use of Getting Sober” and the near invisibility, in all the hoopla, of the great “Knock Me a Kiss.” But within that distortion, it’s impossible to quarrel with the level of high jinks, high energy and abundant good will emitted by the Moes.

And who minds being subjected to such hot Jordan specials as “Beware, Brother, Beware” (Eskew in top form), “Messy Bessy,” “Azure Te,” “Reet, Petite and Gone,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” the splendid “Choo, Choo, Ch’Boogie” or the familiar “Let the Good Times Roll”?

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The terrific onstage band is a key player here and consists, for the record, of musical director Royal on piano, James Leary on bass, Yonrico Vondez Scott on drums, Will Miller on trumpet, Gregory Charles Royal on trombone and Fernando Harkless on sax and clarinet. Each one makes a superlative contribution.

But the show betrays its origins. It began in London’s working-class Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and was picked up by Mackintosh (he of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon”) who sent it on to greater glory in the West End and Broadway.

It was designed for intimacy, and one can see how well it would work in a smaller, more populist environment. Much of the effort it expends to create a sense of closeness even at the not-so-big Doolittle Theatre would come a lot more naturally in a smaller house.

Call it an “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” with audience participation. Call it finger painting for the ear. Call it “Godspell” for the 1990s.

It’s that kind of show and that kind of love-fest. And, of course, skewed or not, it’s Louis Jordan Louis Jordan, Louis Jordan, to be savored in direct proportion to one’s willingness or desire to be drawn into the singing, dancing and general cutting up.

Be prepared to do that or consider yourself forewarned.

* “Five Guys Named Moe,” UCLA James A. Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also Sunday, July 25, Aug. 1, 8, 15 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 19, 26, Sept. 2, 9, 16, 23 at 2 p.m.; Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 25. $15-$47; (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Kirk Taylor Nomax

Keith Tyrone: No Moe

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Doug Eskew: Big Moe

Jeffrey Polk: Little Moe

Milton Craig Nealy: Four-Eyed Moe

Kevyn Brackett: Eat Moe

Reginald Royal, James Leary, Yonrico Vondez Scott, Will Miller, Gregory Charles Royal, Fernando Harkless: The Onstage Band

A musical by Clarke Peters featuring the music of Louis Jordan and presented by Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre in association with Cameron Mackintosh. Director/choreographer Charles Augins. Set Tim Goodchild. Lights Andrew Bridge. Costumes Noel Howard. Sound Tony Meola. Vocal arrangements/musical supervision Chapman Roberts. Musical director/supervisor Reginald Royal. Orchestrations Neil McArthur. Production stage manager Thom Schilling. Stage manager Marcia Gwendolyn Jones.


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