Performing Arts

Theater review: M Ensemble kicks off its season with ‘Five Guys’ at the Lyric

John Williams, Jovan Jacobs, Reginald Everson, Donnie Sewarrd, Kunya Rowley and Vlad Dorson hoof up a storm in M Ensemble’s ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ at the Lyric Theater.
John Williams, Jovan Jacobs, Reginald Everson, Donnie Sewarrd, Kunya Rowley and Vlad Dorson hoof up a storm in M Ensemble’s ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ at the Lyric Theater. Deborah Gray Mitchell

Five Guys Named Moe, a musical revue assembled by Clarke Peters in 1990, is a show built around the vintage, lively music of the late bandleader and songwriter Louis Jordan.

It’s hardly new, obviously, but in South Florida it sure is popular. M Ensemble, the black theater company that is the oldest continuously operating troupe in the region, has just kicked off its new season with an exuberant production of Five Guys. And next month, the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs opens its take on Peters’ fanciful revue for a run Dec. 10-Jan. 18.

The run of M Ensemble’s version at the historic Lyric Theater in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood is considerably shorter, only through Nov. 30. But a visit to the beautifully restored 101-year-old theater to see Five Guys Named Moe leads to a treat: an evening of strong singing, stylish dancing and a playfulness that leaves the audience and the performers feeling the spirited fun that ran through Jordan’s music.

Directed by Jerry Maple Jr., with musical direction by Christina Alexander, the show features five imaginary guys who emerge from a radio circa 1943 to help a down-in-the-dumps guy named Nomax (John Williams) with his lady issues.

Creator Peters, who has an impressive acting career (including playing Lester Freamon on The Wire), hasn’t devised the most compelling way of stitching Jordan’s songs together. But the lyrics become advice from the five Moes to Nomax, so the concept works in a utilitarian way.

Williams, whose Nomax has a drinking problem (hence the girlfriend woes), has a great, rich voice, particularly on his big solo If I Had Any Sense. And those five guys named Moe? Fabulous, particularly Don Seward as Eat Moe, Jovon Jacobs as Four-Eyed Moe and Vlad Dorson as Little Moe (Reginald Everson as No Moe and Kunya Rowley as Big Moe are very good, too).

Seward emerges as the show’s star, not by scene-stealing but by sheer talent. His version of Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying (this is Joe Greene’s 1946 original, recorded by Jordan, not the 1964 Gerry and the Pacemakers song) is a showstopper. And though a slimmed-down Seward is the largest guy in the cast, he’s the lightest on his feet, sensational particularly as he executes Walter Kemp-Edwards’ tap choreography.

Everson and Jacobs are a hoot on Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens, and Dorson becomes a real comic character as he sings I Like ’em Fat Like That, Saturday Night Fish Fry and Choo, Choo Ch’Boogie. Rowley gets the audience participating on the well-known Caldonia, Everson asks a logical question on What’s the Use of Getting Sober, Jacobs warns the ladies on Look Out, Sister, and everyone — audience included — gets in on the act on the Trinidad-flavored Push Ka Pi Shi Pie.

The Moes and Nomax get strong musical support from a jazzy quartet (pianist Elijah Gee, drummer Howard Moss, saxophonist Michael Emanuel and bassist Dave Bruker) and singer An’Tony Ingraham. Samuel Linn Davis’ costumes are important in conveying the period, as Gregory Contreras’ minimalist set is basically a framework for showcasing the more than two dozen musical numbers.

On the other hand, the sound is sometimes an issue — deafening in spots, muddy in others — and that’s a shame when the music is so good. And though director Maple has the actors do a lot downstage (plus a bit in the aisles), the auditorium at the Lyric creates a distancing effect between the performers and audience.

M Ensemble, a peripatetic company for the last few years, will be presenting work at both the Lyric and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center this season, entertaining theater lovers far and wide. The company is off to a good start with Five Guys Named Moe.

If you go

What: ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ by Clarke Peters.

Where: M Ensemble production at the Lyric Theater, 819 NW Second Ave., Miami.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 30 (no show Thanksgiving).

Cost: $20 ($15 students and seniors).

Information: 305-893-3551 or www.themensemble.com.

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