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Tucson Weekly Give Us Moe!

"Five Guys Named Moe" provides the perfect dose of holiday cheer.

By Margaret Regan

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  IF YOU NEVER thought you'd see an Arizona Theatre Company audience shimmying on stage in a conga line, think again.

On opening weekend, the exuberant musical showcase Five Guys Named Moe had theatergoers of all ages, from the gray-haired to the pigtailed, shaking their shoulders and kicking out their heels to the rhythms of Louis Jordan's calypso hit "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie." Don't worry if you can't even say the words, let alone rumba: In between their forays under the limbo bar, the six extravagantly gifted song-and-dance men piloting the show will teach you to sing the lyrics. In fact, they'll insist on it. Four-Eyed Moe (played by the captivating Darren Lee Frazier) instructs only those women in the audience who have been unfaithful to their husbands to keep quiet, and only those men who love their mothers-in-law to sing along. Needless to say, he gets a full house singing lustily.

Silly and naughty and inspired throughout, Five Guys Named Moe resurrects for a modern audience the pioneering music of the late Jordan, an African American composer and performer whose 1940s innovations in rhythm and blues inspired the next decade's early rock-and-rollers. The biggest-selling black recording artist of the '40s, Jordan started out as a saxophonist in the waning days of vaudeville and became a "cross-over" artist in race-segregated America during the big band era, serving up a range of styles from calypso to hillbilly. The show, a 1992 Tony Award nominee, reprises 24 Jordan hits, from the rambunctious title song to the lusty "There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" to the moody "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"

Jordan's wonderful tunes are the acknowledged stars of the show, cheerfully directed and choreographed by Kent Gash, who has also staged Moe productions in Virginia and Alabama. But the six men who dance and sing and joke their way through these gems of musical history are eminently worthy accomplices to the composer. No Moe (James Doberman) is a first-rate dancer who manages to sing in a lovely tenor as he does a semi-strip tease atop a bar in "Messy Bessy," and breaks out into kinetic tap while he warbles "Reet, Petite & Gone." The rotund Robert F. Chew is delicious as Big Moe; he belts out the bawdy "Caldonia," another audience participation number, and the rueful "What's the Use of Gettin' Sober?" Little Moe (Steven X. Ward) is hilarious as he dissects his chubby-chaser proclivities in "I Like Them Fat Like That." David White is Eat Moe, a perennially hungry character whose big number is "Knock Me A Kiss."

The sixth, Nomax, is the pivot for the slight story line. Played by Teren Carter, Nomax is a contemporary cool cat who's lost his love. He starts the show off right with a soulful rendition of the bluesy "Early in the Morning." The Five Moes materialize out of his sound system to set him straight with some old-fashioned wisdom about women. All the lessons, natch, are embedded in the Jordan lyrics.

Nomax's urban moderne apartment, designed by Emily Beck, is the suave setting for Act One. (Clever lights turn it briefly into Paris.) By the second half, the Five Moes have led the youngster first to a neon-studded corner in a club district and then into the Funky Butt Club, another throwback to big band days. There we finally see the six-piece band backstage. Led by Jerry Wayne Harkey, the musicians do a fine, smoky job with Jordan's music. Alvin B. Perry's delicious zoot suits help anchor the Moes in another era, while his calypso costumes and his hooker hen (blond wig, pink negligee set off by feathers in Big Bird yellow) are loony fantasies.

Add to all these pleasures the tumbling streamers, confetti, the bobbing audience and the general hilarity, and you get a worthy historical reclamation project that goes a long way toward adding some seasonal joy to the world.

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