When they start to beat it out,
everybody jumps and shouts,
tell me who the critics all rave about,
five guys named Moe.

High brow, low brow, they all agree,
we’re the best in harmony,
I’m telling you folks, you really ought to see,
five guys named Moe.
Lyrics by Larry Wynn/Jerry Breslen

Burns and Murray Review “Five Guys Named Moe” at Cohoes Music Hall

by Gail Burns and Larry Murray

Gail Burns: Looks like we pulled a theatrical double-header yesterday seeing two shows in one trip. And the first one, Five Guys Named Moe at the Cohoes Music Hall, was a musical I hadn’t seen before.

Larry Murray: The show is based on the pioneering music of Louis Jordan (1908-1975) who was known as The King of the Jukebox. While it doesn’t seem all that revolutionary today, it was the badass music of its day. It ruled its particular musical domain from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s when rock and roll was supposedly “born.” Jordan could be considered a preemie of the genre, often topping what Billboard then called the “race” charts.

Gail: It is really sad that Louis Jordan’s recordings have fallen into semi-oblivion even after the success of this jukebox musical in London and New York in the early 1990’s. Part of the reason is undoubtedly racial. I recently enjoyed a fascinating biography of a contemporary of Jordan’s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) on PBS (Click Here for Program). Like Jordan, Tharpe is credited with helping to birth rock and roll and I had never heard of her. I am pretty sure I would have grown up playing their records if they had been white.

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Larry: My feet are still tapping out the great melodies from the swinging 1930’s and feeding off all that tremendous energy of five, no wait, six guys on stage. The video embedded at the very top of this page showcases the original Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five as they belt out the original song that is now the title of the show.

The show begins with just one guy on stage, Nomax (Ariel Padilla) , who is down and blue over a breakup with his girlfriend, Lorraine. The raucous Five Guys Named Moe reveal themselves early on as the dissolute Nomax tries to cope with the pain of his breakup.The title song allows the quintet to introduce themselves to the audience as Big Moe (Daniel Belnavis), Little Moe (Avionace), No Moe (Sheldon Henry), Four-Eyes Moe (Daryl Stewart), and Eat Moe (Marc-Sally Saint-Fleur). They then get to work lifting Nomax’s spirits.

Gail: C-R Productions never fails to cast well, and this show is no exception. These six guys are wonderful singers and dancers. Even though the performance we saw was lightly attended (the sun had finally come out after a two week hiatus and no one wanted to spend a glorious afternoon in a dark theatre) this cast got everyone jumping and jiving. I was ready to get up out of my walker and boogie down!

Larry: Louis Jordan was a bit of an expert on breakups, too. The composer-singer-alto sax player was married five times, and almost died of stab wounds inflicted by his third wife Fleecie Moore who had been his childhood sweetheart. In writing about damaged relationships, he wrote from the heart.

The Five Moes may have served for a time as his conscience. In ways similar to a Greek chorus, they use their songs to warn him of the dangers of drinking too much, giving in to a deep funk, being too demanding of women Through the songs they urge him to pull himself together, dress the wounds of the damaged relationship, and make a fresh start. By resolving his conflicts he could once again let the good times roll, and be happy again, whether in a new relationship or a patched up old one. At least that is what I got out of the songs that constitute most of the story. The songs are all related to each other, and mesh together well. There wasn’t much heft to Clarke Peter’s brackish book, perhaps because the writer was smart enough to get out of the way and let the songs tell the story. He wrote just enough grimy, gloomy self-pity for Nomax to provide the necessary contrast to the more upbeat musical Moes. Clarke provided just enough joshing dialogue for them to show that they were individuals, too not stamped from the same mold.

Gail: Peters based his script on a short film Jordan made in 1943 which had the same title and a similar plot – Jordan hits strung together to educate a young man in the ways of love. Since a short was not more than 25 minutes long, Peters clearly had to add a lot more material to come up with a 90 minute, two-act show. There is no shortage of great Louis Jordan songs, but the “plot” is stretched beyond comprehension. We won’t attempt a synopsis, but Music Theatre International, which licenses this show, has the definitive version on their site.

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Larry: In a show with so many things that were exemplary, only the lighting was somewhat below par. I swear C-R Productions needs to pay their electric bill, there were times the faces of the actors on stage remained in the dark, even as the disco and twinkle lights and gels throbbed and flashed. At times it was like trying to watch a play lit by lightning bugs. At others the stage was gorgeously lit and the performers looked absolutely radiant. The focus seemed to shift between making the scenery the star, and then the actors. Which makes sense in a way, David S. Goldstein did both the Scenic and Lighting Design and may have run out of lighting instruments for the downstage right area, and full illumination when songs were delivered in certain spots.The overall effect was more dingy than atmospheric.

Gail: We both loved Goldstein’s set which perched the pit band in an apartment upstairs from Nomax. It looked suitably grimy/urban and then something lit up or moved and it became the Funky Butt Club! The only aspect of the set we both hated was that slide-in bathroom. It didn’t want to slide in and it didn’t want to slide out and it served no purpose in the plot since there is no plot to speak of anyway. This show is about the music and that set piece just got in the way.

Speaking of the music, where would you put it in terms of style? Jordan wrote many, but not all, of his own hits.

Larry: Jordan certainly used elements of the rhythm and blues, calypso, jazz and “novelty” songs that came before them, but when you come down to it, I think the music started as part of the “swing” sound so popular in the 30’s but evolved into what was then a new form of jumping’ jive. Wiki categorizes his output as “jump blues”, a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie.

Regardless of classification, the fast paced music was among the styles that soon crossed over to white audiences. Jordan and his band were second only to Duke Ellington and Count Basie in popularity, and were in the forefront of smaller quartets and quintets that showed you didn’t need a big band to get people dancing.

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The opening song of Act Two, “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is a real toe-tapper, and one of the earliest and most powerful contenders for the title of “First rock and roll record”. It was among the first songs to use the word “rocking” in the chorus and to prominently feature a distorted electric guitar, and the first to gain widespread popularity.

Elements of his style were soon picked up by the pioneers of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry to James Brown. He is considered a father or rock and roll and is labelled that in the R&R Hall of Fame.

With such great bones, no wonder the music was full throttle, both from the performers and the band.

Gail: I had listened to the original Broadway cast recording many years ago and instantly fell in love – which is why I was so excited to see it appear on the Season 10 line-up at Cohoes.

Larry: I love how the band really meshed together, it’s probably the best pit band ever at Cohoes. But I think there was an energy exchange between the performers that ramped up the rock and roll effects. The quintet did more than just sing, too, they managed to kick up the dust on the Cohoes stage, Director Christopher George Patterson’s strong suit clearly being the choreography.

Gail: And that was tricky here because the Moes need to be very distinct physical and vocal types. They aren’t a neatly assembled cookie-cutter chorus line. I remember watching Gladys Knight and the Pips on TV variety shows as a kid and joking that the men’s movements were so synchronized that they moved “like one big Pip.” There are times when the Moes have to be that synchronized too, but they must always retain their individuality. They are never “one big Moe.”

Larry: Like you, I hadn’t seen Five Guys Named Moe before, and am really happy to finally see this chronicle of adventurous music that emerged from the 30’s and 40’s. It wasn’t all Guy Lombardo and Patti Page. I also found the whole show a marvelous compendium of 1930-40’s black hipster slang, including the use of the word “chick” to describe a woman.

Gail: American culture was sadly segreated in the mid-20th century, but shows like this can help erase those barriers for future generations and give us all a clear look at how popular music evolved.

Larry: Bottom line: with dynamic performances, a jumpin’ jivin’ band and some of the best music ever written, what could possibly keep people from wanting to give this lively show a look-see. Like the matinee audience at the performance we saw, they will likely end up on their feet at the end giving this group of amazing performers the ultimate big thank you for a job well done, the standing ovation.

Cohoes Music Hall, Home of C-R PRoductions presents Five Guys Named Moe, Book by Clarke Peters, Music and Lyrics by Louis Jordan. Christopher George Patterson (Director/Choreographer); David S. Goldstein (Scenic/Lighting Designer); Ken Chamberlain (Lighting Designer/Master Electrician) and Robert Norman (Technical Director). Cast: Nomax – Ariel Padilla; Big Moe – Daniel Belnavis; Little Moe – Avionace; No Moe – Sheldon Henry; Four-Eyes Moe – Daryl Stewart; Eat Moe – Marc-Sally Saint-Fleur. Band: Musical Director/Pianist – Ryan Bolinger; Trumpet – Cathy Sheridan; Reeds – Dan jones; Bass – Dan Cordell; Trombone – Ben O’Shea; Drums – Jim Laketta. Running Time about two hours including one intermission. March 7-17, 2013 at the Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes, New York. (Presenting Sponsor – NH Kelman, Inc. Scrap Recycling.)

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