In 1996 Geva scored a hit with its staging of Five Guys Named Moe, a high-stepping show celebrating the music of African-American blues pioneer Louis Jordan and his contemporaries. Ten years later the theater brings the production back with the same director (Pamela Hunt) and a new choreographer (Mercedes Ellington), but most likely the same results. Two days after seeing the show, I've still got some of the tunes stuck in my head.
That music is critical since there isn't much of a story to Five Guys Named Moe. The play opens with Nomax, a down-on-his-luck guy with girlfriend trouble, drinking himself into a stupor while listening to some old blues on the radio. Suddenly a garishly dressed man literally rises out of the floor and introduces himself and his color-coded comrades, the titular five guys named Moe: Four-Eyed Moe, Little Moe, No Moe, Eat Moe, and Big Moe. The quintet spends the rest of the evening singing a slew of blues and jazz hits from the early 20th century in an effort to teach Nomax how to act like a man and treat his woman right.
Honestly, you can pretty much check out of the narrative. It's nice and gives the evening a modicum of structure, but ultimately just a showcase for the singing and dancing. Both are performed exceptionally well here. A weak link among any of the six players could have brought the show down, but the cast sparkles both vocally and in the demanding hoofing put together by Ellington. (I only wish there had been more tapping; with performers this skilled, the one scene wasn't nearly enough.)
Each of the Moes gets a chance to shine, but of special note are Michael-Leon Wooley as Big Moe, whose reserved yet gregarious role melts away during his rousing performance of "Caldonia" in the second act, and J. Cameron Barnett as Four-Eyed Moe. Again, all of the performers impress (including Darius Nichols as Nomax, Darryl Reuben Hall as No Moe, Randy Donaldson as Little Moe, and Jim Weaver as Eat Moe), but Barnett steals the show. He throws himself completely into the campy, dishy role that is Four-Eyed Moe, and I couldn't help but think of Meshach Taylor's Hollywood in the cheeserific '80s flick Mannequin. That's a high compliment, indeed.
Kudos also go to scene designer James Morgan, whose highly stylized urban streetscape in Act I seamlessly morphs into a moody nightclub in Act II. The backdrops feature just enough detail to capture my attention, but avoid being overly cluttered. They also make a great home for the on-stage band, which absolutely rocks the house. Folks mourning the loss of the Jazz Fest when it wraps this weekend can find some solace in these musicians' vamps and solos.
Finally, a word of warning: If you're not big on audience participation, try to sit in the middle of your designated section. At the end of Act I the Moes draft aisle-adjacent audience members into a massive conga line that goes up the stage and back. But even middle seats cannot save you from the evening's several call-and-response songs; if you don't sing back, you open yourself up to heckling by Four-Eyed Moe or No Moe. Thankfully, you'll likely be so wrapped up in the groovy evening that even the most jaded audience member won't hesitate to join in for a verse of "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie."
Five Guys Named Moe | through July 9 | $18.50-$53.50 | Geva Theatre, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, 232-GEVA, www.gevatheatre.org.
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