Moe Power to It

It's tough, even in a town with a large theatrical talent pool, to cast an all-singing, all-dancing musical revue. In Phoenix, it's next to impossible. And when you're talking about a show that relies on the talents of six African-American hoofers with big voices, the casting choices are even more limited.

Given those handicaps, the latest show by Black Theatre Troupe should have been a dismal failure. Five Guys Named Moe is a musical revue of songs popularized by rhythm and blues pioneer Louis Jordan; its success depends on a cast of dancers and singers of extraordinary ability who can sell a lot of unfamiliar songs. All of that makes the success of this production even more impressive.

The company, now in its 26th year, has assembled a talented team worthy of any first-rate theater town. The choreography is slick and well-executed, the performances consistently entertaining, and the thin comedy played for all it's worth. The resulting revue spins off the stage and into the laps of its audience, which must contend with endless interaction with the performers and a pile of lyric sheets that is hurled onto its head from the rafters.

The scrap of a story concerns a man named Nomax (David J. Hemphill) whose girlfriend has dumped him. The Five Moes--who have cloyingly cute names like No Moe and Eat Moe--leap from this fellow's radio late one boozy night and spend a couple of hours consoling him with music popularized by the late Jordan.

In popular terms, Jordan's music hunkers down somewhere between jazz and rhythm and blues, and the songs here make for an entertainingly diverse set. I hadn't heard most of the numbers, and can't remember many of the melodies even now, but their obscurity didn't make the songs any less appealing.

All of the songs were either written or performed by Jordan and his Tympany Five between 1938 and 1975, the year the singer died. Several of the numbers are toe-tappers, like the pre-rap "Beware, Brother, Beware" and the jazzy "Reet Petite," and each of them is refashioned here to provide opportunities for the cast to be peppy and likable.

I'd forgotten what a pleasant singing voice Hemphill has--the last time I heard him sing was in the lamentable Guv II, in which his vocals were eaten up by lousy acoustics. As Nomax, he mopes and pouts and occasionally belts a solo, and more than holds his own alongside the formidable Moes. Sean Boone as Eat Moe is another standout; he's the most accomplished dancer here, and his four-octave range is killer.

Reggie Kelly's complicated choreography showcases each of his dancers, and his tight, simple direction doesn't stray far from Charles Augins' original. He ends Act One with an annoyingly catchy conga line (there really should be an ordinance against audience participation in live theater), and spotlights several fine vocal performances during the show's second half--particularly Charles A. Johnson's wailing, stomping take on "Caldonia" and Boone's rousing rendition of "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." Musical director Lawrence O. Dabney tosses a solo to each of his bandmates, who have been integrated into the abstracted city skyline of Thom Gilseth's crafty stage design.

The show's only real handicaps are sonic: The band, a six-piece jazz ensemble from Arizona State University, is no Count Basie Orchestra. And the amplification of the singers, at least at the Sunday matinee I attended, was inconsistent and somewhat shrill, which resulted in several vocals being lost behind the music. But technical glitches aside, Moe packs a wallop. The show winds up by asking that momentous musical question "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" (probably Jordan's best-known number), and by proving that Black Theatre Troupe is as capable as any company of presenting a slick, entertaining musical.

Black Theatre Troupe's production of Five Guys Named Moe continues through Sunday, April 20, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.