By Pat Robbennolt
Five Guys Named Moe is one “funky” show, Jim Crabtree told the opening night audience. The “Urban Dictionary” defines funky as “strange, different but cool, nice.” And funky it is.
This musical, with the book by Clarke Peters, features music by Louis Jordan and others and was originally produced at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1990.
The show is based on a 1943 musical short by Louis Jordan. You may want to see and hear it on YouTube. There you can see and hear the saxophone of songwriter Louis Jordan, along with the trumpet, bass, drums and piano of the earlier show. The new slant Jordan gave to jazz opened the way for the 1950s with its rock and roll.
In place of the instrumentalists, the Playhouse production has Chris Rayis making his debut as the musical director. Playing from high up to the left of the stage he alone creates the sound for all twenty-seven of the songs. For audience members, it is amazing to occasionally turn toward the TV screen opposite the stage to see Rayis at work, his hat bobbing over his ever-active hands.
The time is the 1940s. All the action takes place in and around the New York streetscape set designed by John Partyka, who also serves as technical director. There is an unyielding grayness to this set that reflects the grayness of the life of Nomax providing a backdrop for his neighborhood hangout as well as the “Funky Butt Club.”
Quinn Cason plays Nomax, as confused not only about his relationship with a woman, but about life in general. His girlfriend is no longer with him. He needs money. His depression is palpable. From his 1930s style radio, in the midst of his musing confusion, emerge the astounding Five Guys Named Moe. They are clad in identical suits with suspenders, ties, and even pocket-handkerchiefs of startling colors. Through the costuming, Rebel Mickelson and Giorgio’s Men’s Warehouse emphasize the sameness and uniqueness of each Moe. Big Moe, Four-eyed Moe, Eat Moe, No Moe and Little Moe have come to comfort Nomax who has relied heavily on alcohol to keep him going. He tells them, “I Know What I’ve Got,” in his resonant voice. After all, he is “Safe, Sane and Single.”
The Moes question whether Nomax might develop trust beyond alcohol. Together they teach the audience “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie.” (You may wish to commit those sounds to memory before you see the show and join in the fun.)
It is a treat to have director/choreographer Harry Bryce at the Playhouse once again. Bryce has developed visionary works as director, choreographer, and arts educator over many years and in countless venues. This is his sixth production at the Cumberland County Playhouse. In 1997, he founded the Memphis Black Repertory Theater and served as producing and artistic director for five seasons. The friendship and mutual respect he shares with Jim Crabtree brought shared shows between Crossville and Memphis.
Donald Frison, assistant to the choreographer, plays the role of Little Moe. His unique skills as singer, dancer, choreographer and actor have given audiences a treat each time he has been here. With his sinewy, compact body, Frison is a standout among these five who are some of the best male dancers I have ever seen. It is always a treat to have Frison on the Playhouse stage.
Earley Dean, Four-Eyed Moe, is making his third Playhouse appearance. We saw him in Crowns and in Hairspray, among other shows. Laughter echoed through the Adventure Theater as he sang “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” with No Moe. No Moe, with his uniqueness among the Moes, is played by Porter Anderson. His biographical sketch in the program reveals “he has acted, sung and danced his way across every major stage in Sarasota.” We are grateful he leaves Florida for Tennessee now and again. “Look Out Sister” showcases the fine voice Dean contributes to the ensemble.
It was amazing to watch the astonishing dancing of Horace Smith, as Big Moe. Many of us have cherished his unique vocal and acting talents in Grease, Hello Dolly, and his one-man show as Paul Robeson. Smith is a very large man. To watch him move with the other Moes as a dancer is awesome. It is a treat to hear his powerful voice again as he leads the other Moes in singing “Caldonia,” with the audience being given its part as well. It is great to have you back, Horace Smith.
During his seasons as a part of the Playhouse family, we have celebrated Michael Ruff. We celebrated his acting ability as Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy. He has touched the lives of many youngsters as an educator in the dance program. His Eat Moe is not only always hungry but amazing in his agility as a dancer. We hear the fine quality of his vocal work as he sings, “Life Is So Peculiar” and “Azure Te” with the other Moes.
If you are ready to laugh and cheer, to feel the vibrations of Louis Jordan’s greatest hits, order your tickets right away. We are able to keep the Moes with us only through late October. In this musical, the Cumberland County Playhouse again offers “The Best Party in Town!” Are you ready to join the funky fun?