Moe's the Pity

A great evening at the theater is composed of a whole host of elements, some obvious, some more subliminal. The basic minimum is an excellent script and superb cast. Then lighting, sound, costumes, and other technical effects -- or the stark absence of them -- contribute more. But what about the reactions of the audience around you, the quality of the equipment used, even how easy it is to park? A critic would be less than truthful in saying that he or she can always easily separate out the curd from the whey, the "heart of the work" from all its other, perhaps less crucial, components.

This is precisely why directors and producers must carefully divine the right marriage of work and venue. You don't put a stark two-character Beckett piece on a huge stage with gaudy scenery and seating for 2000. Conversely, you wouldn't want to hear a lavish rock musical like The Who's Tommy in a tiny black-box theater with nothing but a primitive public address system. Not only do such mistakes diminish the work, they can flatly obscure all its merits.

The perfect case in point? Producer Cameron Mackintosh's mega-musical hit in London and Broadway, Five Guys Named Moe, now attempting to play at the Jackie Gleason Theater.

This celebration of the late Louis Jordan, an alto saxophonist and composer from the 1940s era as well as a pivotal figure in the development of rhythm and blues, has won extraordinary acclaim. Five Guys Named Moe earned London's highest award A the Olivier A for Outstanding Entertainment of the Year and Best Choreographer. It became an instant sellout, moving on to Broadway in 1992 and there garnering a Tony nomination for best musical.

Louis Jordan, whose compositions make up the score of the musical, holds the all-time record for Top Ten rhythm and blues hits (55 in all), as well as number-one hits in R&B (twenty). Jordan's "jump blues" beat has been interpreted over the years by Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Joe Jackson, Albert Collins, and B.B. King, to name just a few. The titles -- "Choo-Choo-Ch'Boogie," "Caldonia," "Let the Good Times Roll," "Is You Is or Is You Ain't Ma Baby" -- read like selections from some dream jukebox.

The South Florida production includes three original Broadway cast members and the original musicians, dubbed by several critics "the hottest band on Broadway." The choreography by Charles Augins has stayed intact from the New York and London presentation, as has the luscious set by Tim Goodchild and costumes by Noel Howard. The only thing that's altered is the theater itself. And what a difference a hall makes.

The Jackie Gleason Theater's acoustics (via hell) have been known to diminish quite a few shows. I remember seeing Private Lives when you could only hear Joan Collins and her fellow actors speak lines if they all acted from stage right. Any other time the words were muffled so badly you thought you were suffering from nerve deafness. In the 1989 production of Les Miserables, the music whined through the speakers, rendering the highly melodic show barely tolerable.

On the night I saw Five Guys Named Moe, the show exhibited no energy, the lyrics were inaudible, and the "hottest band in the world" didn't cook once. The most I heard was mild simmering. The saxophone screeched above the musicians and singers like a fingernail running over a chalkboard. The audience politely applauded through most of the first act and some of the second. There was not a shred of chemistry between performer and recipient. Only when, at the end of act one, the cast encouraged the audience to form a mambo line during a dreadfully elongated Calypso number (try twenty minutes, easy) called "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie," did everyone start to smile. It's because they got to dance on- stage for a while. Fame for fifteen seconds and all that jazz. I mused at how cheaply adoration can be bought these days.

On the other hand, there's no disputing the fact that the choreography is topnotch, the cast is excellent, and the idea (five musical guardian angels emerging from a radio to give a lovelorn man advice through Jordan's songs) is original and fun. But it's a musical revue, and when the music sounds like tinny junk, how can it be entertaining? I wish I had the time to visit the other South Florida venues in which this will play -- the Parker Playhouse in Broward and the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in West Palm Beach -- to see if the show does get better in another setting. But the time dictates of this column would mean that even if I did, it wouldn't help the ticket-buyer, since the show would have already moved on down the road.

I could envision how, with a roaring band, the energy would pick up and the show would become infectious. It has all the elements of a good musical, especially if you like jazz or R&B. If you don't, then forget it. In the Gleason, however, the musical drone made every tune sound like the same song to me. I did enjoy watching the considerable dancing and performing skills of Kirk Taylor as Nomax (the lovelorn man), Milton Craig Nealy as Four-Eyed Moe, and Kevyn Brackett as Eat Moe. The flavor of the era was nicely captured in both the songs by (and songs made famous by) Jordan and the connecting dialogue by Clarke Peters. But the benefits don't make up for the deficiencies in presentation, and after a while, even the cast lost steam. You can only push a huge rock uphill for so long. With the audience deadened and the sound dimmed, the spirit waned.

To add to this concept of a nice show in the wrong house, ushers seated people haphazardly, not adequately checking their ticket stubs, and then brought latecomers continually throughout act one to seats that were occupied (hence, heated discussions ensued). Bored audience members made loud comments to each other. Maybe it was a bad night for hearing aids. My favorites were the two dames behind me, who kept arguing about whether Kirk Taylor was white or black. Now that's what I call clueless. Let's even ignore the concept that the race of a performer is irrelevant to his performance. But in this case, if you understood the point of the show and the origin of this type of music, the question could not be asked.

After suffering through two long acts of Five Guys Named Moe, a musical that would never be classed as brilliant, but could have been mo' fun at a hotter spot, I emerged from the Gleason with one odd thought. Maybe Dade needs that county performing arts center after all.


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