The staid and storied Cabot Theater, famous for its European design and story driven musical theater, has turned in to a rollicking, soul train unlike anything seen there in recent memory.
It’s the Skylight Music theatre production of “Five Guys Named Moe,” a parade of the music of Louis Jordan, the bandleader and singer who was known as “King of the Jukebox” during his career that went from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.
For a theater company with an overwhelming white audience base, the show is an eloquent testimony to the fact that while we may put labels on music, good music knows no boundaries defined by race.
The story is a thin one, pegged to Nomax, played by Gavin Lawrence, the outstanding actor who is joining the core company at American Players Theatre this season. Mr. Lawrence comes slow-strolling onto a simple stage set with a chair and a table and an old fashioned radio on top of the table.
He’s got whiskey and he’s got the blues.
“It’s early in the morning
And I can’t get right.
I had a little date
With my baby last night.
It’s early in the morning
And I ain’t got nothing but the blues.”
He is in full sulk and then POOF! Like magic, the voice on the radio talks to him.
He’s full of drunken wonder and confusion and and then again, POOF! five guys show up, out of the radio, dead set in getting Nomax straightened out in both his love life and the rest of his life as well.
This is one colorful quintet.
The tall and skinny Eat Moe (Sean Anthony Jackson); the giant Big Moe (Lorenzo Rush, Jr.); the cherubic Four-Eyed Moe (James Carrington); the rotund and jiggly Little Moe (Kevin James Sievert); and the shaved head belonging to No Moe (Shawn Holmes).
All of these guys can sing and dance and act and they take us through a series of songs, all designed to get Nomax straight and get the audience tapping feet, clapping hands, bobbing heads and smiling from ear to ear.
There are no moments of sorrow or drama in this music. It’s upbeat, fun and what messages are there are positive – how men should treat women and how women should be careful around men.
This production, under the joyful direction of Malkia Stampley, is the kind of thing that is a perfect evening for the cold of a Milwaukee winter.
Ms. Stampley, who has directed the jubilant “Black Nativity” at the Marcus Center the last three years, has more than a touch of soul in her soul. She also has a pristine and penetrating glare into the heart of a tale well told and the music that drives it.
Collaborating with Music Director Christie Chiles Twillie and choreographer Lanette Costas, Ms. Stampley has filled the small stage at the Cabot with jumpin’ and jivin’ and moment after moment of high flying joy.
Every performer gets moments in the sun and each one of them grabs the spotlight and sets off on a run that drags each audience member along on the trip.
But the most fascinating part of the evening is when all five, or six of these actors are in action.
Ms. Costas has created choreography that is both entertaining and unique. Rather than push for everybody doing the same thing at the same time, she gives these dancers time and space for their own individual touches on numbers. All of these men look decidedly different, from the huge Big Moe to the reed-thin Eat Moe and each has his own style. Much to the credit of Ms. Costas and Ms. Stampley, each actor is able to fly along in his own individual flow and merge with the other characters.
A gimmick in the show – albeit a very successful one – is involving the audience in the show. There are sing alongs, jokes on patrons and a wildly imaginative and successful conga line that ended the first act.
One of the most striking things about this show is how “black” it is.
Like many businesses, the world of theater struggles with diversity – providing opportunity for marginalized populations, women, blacks, latinos, Asians and others.
Artistic Director Ray Jivoff deserves immense credit for staging a show so out of the wheelhouse of Skylight. He didn’t stage it because it was a black show but staged it because it was a good show.
I can’t help but wish, however, that we’ll get to the day when we don’t need a racially identifiable show to be diverse. When a back director helms “Death of a Salesman” or a white director handles “A Raisin in the Sun” the world of theater will truly be a diverse universe.
As the creep toward that idea continues, “Five Guys Named Moe” proves that a glorious evening of entertainment crosses all boundaries and touches your soul.
Production credits: Stage Director, Malkia Stampley; Music Director, Christie Chiles Twillie; Choreographer, Lanette Costas; Scenic Designer, Tara A. Houston; Lighting Designer, Latrice Lovett; Costume Designer, Samantha Jones; Sound Designer, Zack Berinstein; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner.