Los Angeles Theater Review: FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE (Ebony Repertory Theatre)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on May 21, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


I’ve loved Obba Babatundé since I first saw him thirty-five years ago in Dreamgirls. Even amidst the legendary star turns of his female co-stars, he made a remarkable impression, with his ineffable presence, and warm, smoky voice. He’s had many successes in the years since, and the 25th Anniversary production of Five Guys Named Moe presented by Ebony Repertory Theatre counts among them. Babatundé holds the stage effortlessly in this eccentric celebration of songs made famous by the 1940’s alto saxophone player and band leader Louis Jordan, who, along with his group Tympany Five, is remembered for novelty songs like “Caldonia,” “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” and “Five Guys Named Moe.”

The show was created in London in 1992 by writer Clarke Peters and director/ choreographer Charles Augins. Peters fashioned a book to string together the Jordan catalogue, creating a character called Nomax (Babatundé), drunk and sad after a recent break-up, who dreams that the five Moes (of the song with music and lyrics by Larry Wynn and Jerry Breslen) come alive—popping out of his radio with a mission that’s sort of a bebop version of “A Christmas Carol,” if Dickens’ focus had been the battle of the sexes.

It’s a premise I suspect was played mostly for comedy when the show was originally done, but here, Babatundé is transparent and completely in the moment, simply embracing the character’s despair and intoxication to unexpected pathos. He takes the performance perhaps deeper than Peters intended, giving the evening some satisfyingly peculiar grace notes. Director/choreographer Keith Young takes full advantage of what he’s got—giving Babatundé the time and space to do his thing. Even in the frenetic, crowd-pleasing first act closer, “Push Ka Pi Shie Pie,” Babatundé has a moment in time outside the joyful romp, where you can imagine this night coming to a horrifying end for him, perhaps in a drunk tank or off a bridge.

Happily, the five Moes would never let a thing like that happen.

There’s Big Moe (Octavius Womack), Little Moe (Trevon Davis), Four-Eyed Moe (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), No Moe (Jacques C. Smith), and Eat Moe (Eric B. Anthony). They’re a quirky bunch. Other than visually, the book doesn’t give the five of them a lot of individuality. (Eat Moe talks about eating, for instance, but that alone doesn’t particularly set him apart from any of the other Moes.) As for the performers, however, these are five very different men, each with his own striking set of abilities.

As the characters, their job is to provide Nomax with alternative ways of finding and keeping love. Admittedly, in songs like “Safe, Sane, Single,” and “Messy Bessy” that advice can delight in some very un-p.c. attitudes—aided and abetted by the complete absence of living, breathing women on-stage. You can’t help loving a song like “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That,” for instance, a silly, affectionate 1947 tribute to plus-sized women that preceded “Baby Got Back” by forty-five years.

Eric B. Anthony and Rogelio Douglas, Jr., are perhaps the most accomplished dancers of the five Moes (they shine in a second act dance-off), but the fact that other performers may not be quite as nimble just adds to the cheerful chaos. There’s a nonchalant acceptance and respect in how the five men interact that gives the group numbers balance and allows each to unabashedly go for the gold when it’s his moment in the spotlight. And there are many such moments—most notably in “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” (led by Douglas, Jr.’s convulsively funny lead vocal) and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” for me the night’s biggest showstopper; musical and emotional bliss.

John Feinstein’s sound design is first rate, never mind a couple of opening night glitches. The sound envelopes you, but still comes unmistakably from each singer. That can be a tricky thing to accomplish. Musical director Abdul Hamid Royal is profoundly gifted. The arrangements are tight, but also expansive and extemporaneous when the mood strikes. And the band cooks.

My only real beef is that Daniel Weingarten’s lighting leaves the performers too often in the dark. You’ve got six stars up there giving it everything they have. Let me see their faces.

photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

Five Guys Named Moe
Ebony Repertory Theatre
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center
4718 West Washington Boulevard (betweeen La Brea and Crenshaw)
ends on June 11, 2017
for tickets, call 323-964-9766 or visit Ebony Rep

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex De Fortuna June 8, 2017 at 4:12 pm

The credit for the showstopping vocal arrangements in Five Guys Named Moe — including “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” which was reviewed with such high praise here by Mr. Hoffman — should be credited to the original creator of the vocal arrangements for Five Guys Named Moe: Chapman Roberts.


Greg Manwaring December 9, 2019 at 9:36 am

I had seen the original production umpteen times at the Lyric in LONDON, and I have to say that this was the first time I shed tears as Obba bared NoMax’s soul on the stage for us. Incredible performance!


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