With its crowd-pleasing production of Five Guys Named Moe, Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre has come up with an energetic winner—an entertaining combo of Who Needs a Script Anyway? and the incredibly creative songbook of Louis Jordan & his Tympani Five.
The two hour revue centres around Nomax (Darius Nichols) who, aided by copious amounts of hard liquor (“What’s the Use of Getting Sober?,” an Act II favourite) reflects on his poor luck with women in general and the unseen Lorraine in particular. Drowning his sorrows to the accompaniment of an out-of-genre ghetto blaster, the hapless lover is suddenly (“they came out of nowhere”) joined by the Five Moes: No Moe, Darryl Reuben Hall—whose impersonation of “Messy Bessy” is a hilarious hoot; Big Moe, Michael-Leon Wooley, who understudied the role on Broadway and, note-for-note, the finest voice on the stage; Little Moe, Randy Donaldson—the height-challenged jokester, resplendent in floppy beret or gleaming crown; Four-Eyed Moe, J. Cameron Barnett—his zany birdwalk in “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” a showstopper and, er, most certainly up to scratch; Eat Moe, Jim Weaver—nimble and adept, but needing a bit more vocal weight to lift “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” from tasty appetizer to full meal.
The first half of the show is a primer—by song-and-dance apparition—on the perils and potential of women. Big Moe, in “Beware, Brother, Beware” warns the student-of-love about chicks “who are looking to hook you.” Having survived a rhythmical, if cream-less shave, Nomax is next regaled about the pleasure of extra flesh as Little Moe reveals that “I Like ‘em Fat Like That.” The size-might-matter images aroused by the coupling of a Big Momma with the full-figure fetishist drew howls of laughter from both sides of the stage.
And there is the key to success. These guys are having fun. They light up the room with their infectious grins and move about the stage with verve and pizzazz. An early highlight is “Life Is so Peculiar.” Mercedes Ellington’s comic-book choreography is tossed off frame by frame even as the complementary series of modulations are rendered with near-perfect pitch. Before you can say “bring it home” the Dixie/gospel finish ignites cheers, applause and smiles. The “King of the Jukeboxes” continues to triumph more than three decades after his final double bar.
With such a talented troupe and crew giving their all, the big frustration comes from never hearing a true sound. Aside from looking like a call-centre workplace, the wireless headset microphones rob the audience of any feeling of real intimacy. Nichols’ voice (the first heard) comes across as pleasant, but it can’t utilize the theatre’s natural acoustic (although even that wouldn’t remove the strain at the top end). As the Moes fly about the stage, there is no aural sense that they have changed position—their presence remains constant even when venturing into the audience (“Push Ka Pi Shi Pie”), although the conga enthusiasts didn’t mind. Worse: in the full-cry ensembles, the reinforcement needles hit red, a nickel shy of distortion and dollars short of a collective “oh yeah!” that unassisted, spot-on harmony can evoke. The dialogue also falls victim. Much of the banter slips away due to the required rapid-fire delivery, but the inability of the speaker to actually hear how his lines (a) come out (b) bounce back is evident in the comedic timing.
Not to remain unplugged, the band is also thrust into the electronic mix. Why then do music director Corinne Aquilina and her “Five” overpower the protagonists? Perhaps a chorus of “Doing What Comes Naturally” is in order. The onstage instrumentalists prove to be capable supporters, but apart from Rick Fleming’s trombone, fail to reach any soloistic heights.
After intermission, the plot’s premise is happily ignored. Soon the Moes change into formal wear (John Carver Sullivan’s opening act costumes are perfect, James Morgan’s nightclub set is as snappy and colourful as the music) and belt out tune after tune with aplomb. Highlights include Wooley’s compelling rendition of “Caldonia,” Donaldson’s sparkling “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (with—ironically—the best sight gag of the night when the old-fashioned mic stands morph into “The Little Engine That Could”) and the song that everyone’s been waiting for, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t my Baby?”
Director Pamela Hunt’s affection for Jordan, savvy scene changes and ability to haul in or let the cast fly as appropriate take this production far beyond the challenges of twenty-first century sound design and justifies a rewrite of the old adage: The Moe, the merrier! JWR