95% Out of 100: Clarke Peters’ Revival “Five Guys Named Moe” A Glorious Tribute To Jump Blues Pioneer Louis Jordan

Five Guys Named Moe is the revival of a full-bellied tribute to ‘King of The Jukeboxes’ Louis Jordan (1908-75) and his Jump Blues (or jump jivin’) legacy.

Merging a book by stage and screen legend and TBB Treasure Clarke Peters [1] and Jordan’s greatest hits, covering everything from Hot Jazz through to  Boogie Woogie Blues it is a must-see!

With drum & bass legend Goldie’s recent video [2] claiming music as an escape to shut out the noise and be transported to a better place of endless possibilities, it should be acknowledged that no-one knows this better than the African Diaspora. Apart from the obvious ‘black’ music categories at the Grammys and the Brits, the pain of our ancestors gifted the world with the inspiration for modern music – Country (via the Blues), Jazz, Swing, Boogie Woogie, Rock’n’Roll and its derivatives, Pop and its derivatives (including dancehall pop/tropical house and Bhangra), Disco, Electronica, Salsa, Rumba, Conga, Samba, Bomba, Cumbia and Reggaeton. More than most musical forms, Jordan’s Jump Blues was a healing salve for African Americans in post-depression, segregated America, as the world headed into a second world war. For some of us, this musical was a personal gateway into our musical heritage at an impressionable age.

As a fusion of Jazz, Swing and the Blues, Jordan and his Tympany 4 (then 5) band, dominated the music scene from around 1935 with his highly syncopated vocals and entertaining, tall-story lyrics on life, love and even business, which he could turn to both the urban and rural. Their popularity peaked in 1946, and made him Billboard Magazine’s fifth most successful recording artist of African descent of all time (Joel Whitburn, R&B chart). He spent 113 weeks at number one (1942-51) with 18 number ones and a total of 57 top 10 hits. Jordan was comedy front man, singer and musician (alto/tenor/baritone saxophone and piano) for his band and, together, they pioneered the wildly danceable jump blues, which told of good times, the ups and downs of relationships, and working dilemmas – all sharply observed. Jordan is also credited with much of Rock’n’Roll and R&B slang, including the adjective ‘rocking,’ and possibly the first recorded Rock’n’Roll song*. Their quick-fire spoken word delivery of numbers like Look Out and Beware Brother Beware, is considered the forerunner to rap.

Peters captures all of this rich legacy in the 27-year-old musical, with a few updates in his new role as director, not least because of the change in gender politics since the 40s, and again since the 90s. Still, even back in the day, Jordan was aware, since Beware Brother Beware and Look Out are basically the same advice given to either sex!

So, what’s Five Guys Named Moe all about? An unkempt Nomax (Edward Baruwa) has been hitting the bottle hard since his girlfriend left him. It’s Early In The Mornin’ and he ain’t got nothin’ but the Blues, when he inadvertently conjures up Five Guys Named Moe, who spring from his period radio to see him through his drunken despair – Big Moe (Horace Oliver), Little Moe (Idriss Kargbo), Know Moe (Dex Lee), Eat Moe (Emile Ruddock) and Four-Eyed Moe (Ian Carlyle). The Guys take Nomax on a 23-number, musical journey through the mistakes they’ve all made in their relationships, and what they’ve loved about their women, to try to get him to see sense and decide what it is he really wants. Nomax proves obstinate, despite ending Act One with the exhilarating Push Ka Pi Shi Pie. This is great news for us, as it means that we get Act Two, in which the Moes take Nomax out on the town to the too-perfect Funky Butt Club and their cabaret act, in an attempt to show him the spice of life missing since his girl’s been gone.

The cast of Five Guys Named Moe. (l-r)
Horace Oliver as Big Moe;
Ian Carlyle as Four Eyed Moe; Edward Baruwa as Nomax; Dex Lee as Kmow Moe; Emile Ruddock as Eat Moe and Idriss Kargbo as Little Moe.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

In writing the book between 1988-90 Peters received input from acclaimed director Paulette Randall, to develop his idea. It sprang from his impromptu staging of the title song for entertainment’s sake whilst working in Sheffield. He simultaneously managed to exorcise some relationship demons of his own, whilst celebrating Jordan’s bartender psychology and rowdy, tongue-in-cheek humour. This is a production showcasing six all-round strong performers at, or near the top of their game, who perfectly evoke Jordan’s legacy, and of which he would be proud! Together, the cast delivers incredibly tight, precision harmonies whilst spreading their infectious sense of fun with spare but effective props and the occasional visual illusion.  Individually, each artist more than holds their own.

Baruwa’s rich-as-molasses baritone absolutely nails Nomax’s booze-addled loneliness with It’s Early In The Mornin’ and his rooted-in-fear belligerent melancholy with I Know What I’ve Got (But I Don’t Know What I’m Getting). Oliver does a fantastic job as sensible baritone Big Moe, telling us about his hard-headed squeeze, Caldonia! (originally 17 weeks at #1) and his Nomax-admonishing What’s The Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)?  Lee perfectly encapsulates the smooth, debonair gentleman-about-town Know Moe and delivers a beautiful Knock Me A Kiss and the swaggering, uber cool standard Let The Good Times Roll; Ruddock’s always hungry, sweet-natured Eat Moe holds his own with Life Is So Peculiar and Safe, Sane and Single. Carlyle’s studious-looking Four-Eyed Moe belies his tender side with the achingly beautiful Azure Te, and his street smarts with the foxy Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens (originally 17 weeks at #1).

Kargbo’s consummate high energy, fully committed performance never lets up, befitting the personality of Little Moe and his fantastically fun solos I Likes ‘Em Fat Like That and Saturday Night Fish Fry* (originally 12 weeks at #1, and possibly the first recorded Rock’n’Roll song). He is perhaps the cast member who most captures Jordan’s humour and musicality. If you absolutely had to single one of the sextet out for particular praise, it might well be him.

Where the production perhaps lacks a little soul at times was when, just occasionally, the choreography didn’t seem to quite fit the loose, free-wheeling feel of Jordan. Still, each Moe executed every move with bags of personality and panache, and you’ll love the sections where they get to tap dance! An added bonus, which only adds to the sense of mutual empathy, is that all six cast members are super-talented Brits!

This Olivier award-winning musical for Best Entertainment debuted in 1990 at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, with Peters as an original but short-lived cast member. It transferred to the Lyric, West End, for 4 years, and then for a further year at the Albery Theatre (1995-96), during which time Jason Pennycooke (soon to be seen in the West End production of Hamilton!) joined. Broadway came knocking in 1992, and Five Guys Named Moe ran for 19 previews and 445 performances, achieving critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the second British revival with all-new staging and choreography, since the Edinburgh Festival’s 2010 production, directed by Randall, with Peters as No max. That show subsequently returned to Stratford.

If you managed to catch any of these previous productions, this will feel like returning home to a favourite Uncle or cousin. If you’ve managed to miss them all before, please don’t let this one pass you by. It is so much more than just clowning around to catchy tunes for the entertainment of a paying clientele. It is a bittersweet reminder of the particular burden this music was then trying to alleviate, and of the pioneering talents of African performers who often only gain the respect and recognition they deserved in life, posthumously.

One thing that we can’t fail to mention is the home to this fantastic show –  the pop-up Marble Arch Theatre in Hyde Park near the Marble Arch itself.  Purpose-built in the style of 1940s New Orleans jazz bars, the pergola-like auditorium combines in both a traditional arena and in-the-round presentation, as a pathway arcs into the audience, creating a central ‘cabaret floor’ of table-sat patrons. It’s well worth a visit. It’s a wonder that the original proposed site at Victoria Embankment was blocked by critical neighbours. It’s far from an eyesore, and surely no one could complain about the rich sounds of the musical.

Five Guys Named Moe previewed from 29th August 2017, and opened on 14th September. It was originally slated to run until 25th November, but has already been extended to 17th February 2018.

For more information and to book, visit https://www.fiveguysmusical.com/ and check out The British Blacklist Instagram to see which stars turned out to support the production.


[1] – TBB interview with Clarke Peters https://thebritishblacklist.co.uk/tbb-speaks-to-clarke-peters-about-owning-the-black-narrative-and-his-role-in-new-itv-series-jericho/

[2] – Goldie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFzkIr8qUXM


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