We have been on a modernization theme at the theatre recently. We explored the relevance of 13th century monarchy to contemporary politics with Edward II, then to the use of epic storytelling style from Greek poetry through Pericles, Prince of Tyre. How could you modernize a music review of 1930‘s-40’s band leader, Louis Jordon? Arena Stage has attempted to take the big-band to blues precursor of rock n’ roll into the 21st century with its production of Five Guys Named Moe.
This fast two-hours of Jordon’s tunes, loosely held together by a plot of lost and regained love, has been around for a couple of decades. It can be a showcase for the big band sound, made bigger by modern amplification and acoustics. However, as such, it is mostly a look back at the pre- and post WWII sound and society.
Nomax (Kevin McAllister) is the young man whom the play revolves around. He strides out singing the bluesy Early in the Morning, in which he laments that his girl has left him. He walks along the front of the stage, while black-and-white photo of tenement housing rise above him. A chair with an old radio sit center stage. Maybe we are going to see a story about Jim Crowe era society? Maybe we are going to see the effects of the Great Depression on inner-city African-American culture?
Instead, the curtain rise as the beat morphs from horns and honky-tonk piano to a funky bass, wah-wah guitar glides, snapping keyboards, and punctuated horns and percussion. Nomax is greeted by five singers (Jobari Parker-Namdar, Sheldon Henry, Clinton Roane, Travis Prochia, and Paris Nix), who will console and counsel him through two dozen of Louis Jordon’s songs.
The singing, the band, the tap dancing and raising-the-roof club tunes are superbly done. However, beyond toe tapping, rhythmic clapping, and call-and-shout response during Caldonia there is not much to Five Guys Named Moe. Certainly, they the five guys warn Nomax about drinking, cheating, and forgetting his girlfriend’s birthday, but we could get that in Sunday school, minus the funky beat. His revelation and repentance seem to be less a heartfelt confession, than we-ran-out-numbers-that-you-might-recognize.
Granted, playing to a Sunday matinée audience of season ticket holders is a tough audience to try to modernize the music of Louis Jordon. Most of us were either fans of Glen MIller or the Beatles. Hopefully the younger audience, whom Arena Stage may have wanted to reach, came out on Saturday night.