You may not be familiar with the name Louis Jordan, but you will certainly be familiar with some of his songs. The effervescent saxophonist is christened with the moniker The Grandfather of Rock & Roll among music historians due to his impressive run of hit records that he wrote and performed for his label Decca Records during the 1940s and 50s, which includes Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?, Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’ and Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.The music from the late jazz musician/singer/composer forms the soundtrack to the revival musical Five Guys Named Moe, which returned to the capital city last week. Actor/writer Clarke Peters, resumes his role as director, quite a feat when you consider he wrote the original production 25 years ago.
Edward Baruwa plays Nomax, a boozed up, sloppily dressed young man who becomes unhinged when his girlfriend Lorraine kicks him to the curb. One night while listening to the radio in a drunken stupor, he mellows out to the sweet like molasses Louis Jordan melodies pumping from his radio. Just before drifting off to sleep, five guys (all named Moe) magically appear from his radio. They introduce themselves as: Four Eyed Moe (Ian Carlyle), Big Moe (Horace Oliver), Little Moe (Idriss Kargbo), Know Moe (Dex Lee) and Eat Moe (Emile Ruddock). Being aware of Nomax’s heartache and subsequent depressive countenance, they take on the role of self-help gurus and set out to help him see the error of his ways and become a better man, one that is emotionally equipped to be in a loving, reciprocal relationship. In terms of plot, that is pretty much it. As someone who loves musicals but also really looks forward to a meaty narrative, the realisation that there wasn’t much of a storyline felt a bit disappointing to begin with. But the performances, feel-good vibrations and the timeless songs all made up for it.
For nearly two hours we are treated to a highly captivating performance from Nomax and his five new friends who sing, dance, jest and drop pearls of wisdom earnestly. Highlights include a calypso-infused number called Push Ka Pi Shi Pie, which induced a fun, heart-warming call and response interaction with the audience, where we are gently coaxed into singing along, dancing along, and one lucky (or unlucky depending on your perspective) audience member is called upon the stage to sing.
Audience participation is paramount to the charm of this production. The aforementioned song leads to a collective conga dance to the bar before the interval, and there are more than a few moments in the show where audience members share the spotlight. Not surprisingly, the setting is really intimate. At the front (referred to as the bull pit) the floor is made to look like a smoky 1940s style jazz club. In the middle of the floor is a secondary revolving stage that looks like a circular conveyor belt. It’s a really inventive use of space that allows for some real up close and personal exchange between audience and performer, and also some clever and intricate dance sequences.
An honorary mention must go out to the band who played exquisitely. Considering there are over twenty numbers performed, some of them more familiar than others, all songs were brought to life with invigorating passion and precision. Equally, all six main performers held their own. Each has a distinctive voice and look, which adds a richness to the proceedings. The closing number, a slowed down version of the classic Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby, features some pretty spine-tingling harmonising from the guys, exemplifying the chemistry that exists between them that is apparent from the start. They certainly have done Mr Louis Jordan proud, whose profile will certainly rise on the strength of this dynamic production. And during an era where the creative output of black artists is yet to be canonised in the same way that white pop/rock artists are in theatreland (think of the reverential treatment of Abba’s discography in Mama Mia and Freddie Mercury and Queen’s in We Will Rock You for instance), it feels triumphant to have an unsung jazz/R&B pioneer championed in such a grandiose and beautiful way.
Five Guys Named Moe is showing at the Marble Arch Theatre until 17th February 2017. For tickets book here