By Bryson David Hoff
There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of “jukebox” musicals out there. However, Scenic Designer Courtney O’Neill’s decision to turn the stage of the Court Theatre into a literal jukebox brings a double meaning to the term for its production of Five Guys Named Moe.
Fresh off of a breakup and knees deep in a whiskey bender, Nomax (Stephen ‘Blu’ Allen) is forced to confront his personality flaws when his antique radio opens up and he finds his home invaded by his jazz-singing guardian angels: Eat Moe (James Earl Jones II), No Moe (Eric A. Lewis), Little Moe (Darrian Ford), Four Eyed Moe (Kelvin Roston Jr.) and Big Moe (Lorenzo Rush Jr.). This introspective odyssey is set, of course, to the music of Louis Jordan, the trailblazing big band musician nicknamed the “Grandfather of Rock ‘n Roll” and is even credited by some music historians as having sewed the seeds of what would eventually become rap with his rapid-fire, percussive lyrics.
As with just about any show constructed around the pre-existing work of a popular musician, showcasing Mr. Jordan’s genius is the priority here. Thankfully, Director Ron OJ Parsons has assembled an ace ensemble of performers who each manage to create a distinct energy and presence without falling into caricature, despite, in the case of the Moes, names that would suggest this being the only way to embody these characters. Furthermore, the naturalistic, earthy style at play in the vocal work lends an authenticity to the sound that is a joy to behold. In short, the play achieves something remarkably rare for a jazz-inflected musical: the performers sound like jazz singers, not musical theatre singers trying to be jazz singers.
The smartness of the music direction and performances truly carry the evening and the piece is undeniably a lot of fun, but it is worth noting that one thing that has not aged well since the original 1990 production on the West End is Clarke Peter’s incredibly thin book.
Though the comedic moments are taut and well-acted, the simple fact is that even a gifted ensemble like this cannot hide that the script is really only connective tissue to go from one beautiful piece of music to the next. This wouldn’t be an issue except, unlike many other revues of famous musicians, Five Guys Named Moe clearly wants the show to have a real, human story in the form of Nomax’s growth into emotional and romantic maturity. The problem is that his flaws are so inexactly defined that the only indication that he has conquered them by the end of the evening is the say-so of his five Jiminy Crickets. It’s not a cataclysmic issue and certainly not the fault of anyone involved in this particular production, but it’s worth bringing up, as the elements that are in control of the creative team are executed so well that this baked-in weakness sticks out like a sore thumb.
Putting that aside, the music is beautiful and beautifully rendered, the charm of the cast is positively infectious, and the design and conceptual work is smart and well executed. In short, when the music is in full swing, you’ll be pressed to find a more infectious show in Chicago right now.
The Court Theatre presents “Five Guys Named Moe” through October 15 at 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.