“Five Guys Named Moe”—the musical revue celebrating the music of Louis Jordan, conceived and written by Clarke Peters—is the theatre event of the summer. Brought to Thalian Hall’s main stage by Opera House Theatre Company, “Five Guys” is codirected and choreographed by Ray Kennedy and Tracy Byrd. It is a stunning, delightful, toe-tapping night of entertainment that will leave audiences glowing with joy for days afterward—well, at least those who aren’t like me and cry under extreme happiness. In other words, I have been a total wreck over this show. It is so engaging, joyful and truly memorable.
Photos by Erik Maasch Photography
Nomax (Nygel Robinson) is up too late at night—or maybe too early in the morning—at about a quarter to five. He’s drinking and bemoaning the mess he has made of his life while he sings along with the radio. “Early in the Morning” is the first reminder, among many to come, that any opportunity to hear Robinson’s voice live is to be savored. The radio is playing a Louis Jordan marathon and includes the song, “Five Guys Named Moe.” Lo and behold, they materialize from his radio to try to save Nomax from his messy life.
Enter five snappy dressed, brilliant entertainers: No Moe (Tracy Byrd), Eat Moe (Tré Cotten), Four-Eyed Moe (Colby Lewis), Little Moe (Keith Welborn) and Big Moe (Terrill Williams). Are they captivating? Are they magical? Are they funny? Absolutely, all of the above. It is just hard to decide where to look because the six men fill the stage with an extraordinary amount of talent and energy.
I am going to get my fan-girl disclaimer out in public right now: I have been looking forward to the show since the cast was announced. Any opportunity to see Tracy Byrd, Tré Cotten, Colby Lewis or Nygel Robinson on stage should be taken advantage of. The possibility of all of them on stage together, with the addition of Terrill Williams and Keith Welborn, is enough to convince me to consider a road trip and possible credit-card debt. To only have to drive to Third Street to see them perform is like a dream come true. Thankfully, they didn’t disappoint … quite the contrary.
It is an ensemble show, with a full band onstage. Terry Collins has built a beautiful art-deco bandstand for James Lane (trombone), Casey Black (trumpet), Darryl Murrill (saxophone), Ryan Woodall (bass), Mike Hanson (percussion), Mitch Herbert (drums) and Ray Kennedy (conductor and piano). Though the ensemble sings and dances throughout the show, each of the Moes has songs they carry. Welborn’s Little Moe gives us “I Like ‘em Fat Like That”, an ode to substantial women that is the precursor to Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Welborn plays Little Moe, even though he is taller than Big Moe. Lithe, very tall and with long arms, Little Moe illustrates the width of the woman he prefers, and as his reach mimics a hockey goalie, he has such a wonderful comedic sense. Even though we are laughing, he sells it and we believe him. Welborn is a delight on stage; his huge smile makes everyone want to sit down next to him and talk for days. He radiates joy and manages to somehow both fill the stage with his presence and create a sense of inviting everyone to join.
Williams’ Big Moe is sort of the advice-giver for Nomax (and the other Moes, too). Sometimes it is humorous advice, like “Brother Beware,” a song about the perils of women who are shopping for a husband. Sometimes it is less cloaked in humor, like the torch-song-esque duet with Robinson, “What’s the Use of Getting Sober When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again.” Williams has a rich, full voice that can make heads turn. When he dispenses advice, it is with a gravitas reminiscent of Morgan Freeman.
But Nomax is not quite at a point where he has much sense, though he is getting there. Robinson is soulful magic on stage. He just is. I don’t know if it is his seductive grin that can convince a girl into anything, or his expressive eyes one could drink from for hours (as my friend commented after the show, “I just kept getting lost in his eyes.”). It is hard to not fall for Robinson. Even with the song, “I Know What I’ve Got,” which might be the ultimate acknowledgment of settling for a relationship, we listen to him sing it and just wish he were singing about us. Though he performs with the Moes most on stage, he frequently watches them, and listening to them, acting as part of their audience. One never doubts he is fully present with them or us. Yes, there is a lot of talent there, but also a lot of craft.
Eat Moe, played by Tré Cotten, gets to do a lot of the direct audience interaction and some of the best jokes in the show (like his recurring threats to fight Nomax). Make no mistake, when he takes the mic for ”Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’,” goosebumps will pop.
The same can be said about Tracy Byrd in “Azure Te.” It’s another moment wherein audience members likely will wish Byrd was singing about them as the reason Paris makes him blue. I mean, for all the joyful abandon in the show, there are moments of captivating introspective love.
Then Colby Lewis just hits us with Four-Eyed Moe and, well, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. “Messy Bessy” is absurdly funny, but maybe it is the well-intentioned (but slightly dated) advice to the women in the audience with “Listen Sister” that has people talking when they leave the theatre.
The choreography is so much fun to watch, and the dancing is so effortless at times it’s easy to forget this isn’t how people walk through daily life. All six are beautiful dancers to watch (Byrd and Lewis especially), and they infuse each movement with grace that makes it feel like ballet … well, until the Conga line. Then it’s apparent a lot of work and effort goes into making their dancing look that natural.
I commented to my date on the way into the show that it wasn’t going to be an evening of great depth, but the music would be good and the show would be fun. The more I think about it, the more I realized I was underselling the script. No, it is not “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but it is a lesson about treating those you care about most in life well, and how decisions you make (or avoid making) have consequences. Though they’re obvious statements, they’re harder concepts to learn and apply. I know I still struggle with these lessons; it is just the teachers in my head are not as engaging as the ones Nomax summoned when he needed them most.
Cotten is getting ready to start a Canadian tour of “Kim’s Convenience” and Byrd just wrapped the national tour of “Motown: The Musical.” I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Colby Lewis is one of our big success stories, and these days he is getting a lot of TV time on “Chicago Med.” Yet, it is his role as Lafayette/Jefferson in the Chicago production of “Hamilton” that has had his musical theatre fans back here in a dither. To have the three of them back on stage together here—even just for a brief shining moment—is really a gift.