Five Guys Named Moe, Marble Arch Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

One of the earliest in the modern wave of jukebox musicals, Clarke Peters’ Five Guys Named Moe showcases the music of 1950s bandleader Louis Jordan. Jordan’s songs, typically uptempo with huge dollops of humour, are among the best examples of jazz swing, and were a step on the road to the development of rock’n’roll.

Peters’ interpretation, which originally premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East before long runs in the West End and Broadway, constructs what is possibly the thinnest of paper thin plots to hang around the performances.

Shambolic loser Nomax (Edward Baruwa) collapses in his armchair in an alcoholic haze while listening to Jordan songs on the radio, and in his stupor the five guys emerge to lecture him about his life choices through the medium of song.

While Nomax’s relationship with his girlfriend is the supposed reason for the whole shebang, it is never explored in depth. Instead, each fleeting mention is used as an excuse for rendition after engaging rendition of some of the finest and most famous swing numbers in the jazz catalogue.

Peters, who returns to this production as its director, takes full advantage of its staging within the Underbelly’s spiegeltent, newly erected next to Marble Arch and decorated in the art nouveau stylings of a New Orleans jazz club.

A raised circular promenade stage around the central pit of cabaret tables keeps the singing and dancing moving around the full space of the tent, allowing even those in the cheap seats to feel close to the entertainment.

And what entertainment it is. Jordan’s best and most well-known songs are held back until Act II, at which point Nomax’s storyline is more or less abandoned and Baruwa joins the audience to watch the Five Guys perform several numbers at the camply named Funky Butt Club.

From ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ to ‘Is You is Or is You Ain’t My Baby?’, the central five performers imbue each song with so much energy and charisma that it is impossible not to get swept along by the spirit of the evening.

Dex Lee’s Know Moe is the finest dancer, from high-speed tap to a series of thrilling (and wince-inducing) splits.

All five Moes benefit from Andrew Wright’s usual high standards of choreography, with Emile Ruddock’s Eat Moe embracing his moves to rise above the rather simplistic one-note joke of his character being an overeater.

But perhaps the strongest all-rounder in the cast is Idriss Kargbo’s Little Moe, whose energy in the dance numbers and grasp of comedy is perfectly pitched for this rambunctious cabaret setting.

Backing up all the performers is a superb six-piece band, filling the speigeltent with the sound of 1950s jazz. Jessamy Holder’s sax playing is a particularly vital part of the band’s sounds – and, notably, without her presence the entire venture would be an all-male experience.

But while Ian Carlyle’s Four-Eyed Moe does at one point apologise to the women in the audience for some of the era’s more chauvinistic attitudes to relationships, there is nothing but warmth given to the whole audience, and returned magnified back to the performers.

Five Guys Named Moe’s book, such as it is, may distract from the performances a little. But nothing can detract too much from the charm and the joy that this production brings to London.

Continues at the Marble Arch Theatre, booking until February 2018. fiveguysmusical.com

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