The time warp happens pretty fast in “Five Guys Named Moe” at Arena Stage: One minute a 1940s drunk named Nomax is moping about troubles with his gal, and the next he is getting advice from five modern singers who have popped out of his radio.
That is the twist in the setup of the traditionally hard-working, lightweight 1992 musical revue “Five Guys,” a package of lively 1930s, ’40s and ’50s hits popularized by sax man and bandleader Louis Jordan as jazz and swing melded into early rock-and-roll. The show is usually a nostalgia act, but not as imagined by director Robert O’Hara. The guys emerge as a slick 21st-century boy band, and the vintage Jordan jump-jive sound is quickly flicked away in favor of heavily beat-driven funk.
It’s the kind of throwaway diversion that Arena resorts to more often than a theater with world-class capability should, even if the result has an impressive high-gloss allure. Clint Ramos’s set in the Kreeger Theater is a glitzy backdrop curtain and two sets of glowing staircases leading to a platform above the stage, where the beaming letters “M-O-E” are so big that the droopy Nomax (Kevin McAllister, doing a deadpan stage drunk) can sit in the “O.”
The guys themselves — Jobari Parker-Namdar, Sheldon Henry, Clinton Roane, Travis Porchia and Paris Nix — are as cool as their surroundings. Dede Ayite puts the quintet in suits that are deftly retro in the first act and almost blindingly spiffy after intermission; the lads wear the clothes well and look awfully good strutting like a hip-hop Rat Pack and shimmying through Byron Easley’s dance-club choreography.
Are you sensing that this is not your grandma’s Louis Jordan? She may recall tunes such as “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,”“Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “Caldonia,” but it is her grandkids who will understand the way Jordan’s swinging style has been stripped down by music director Darryl G. Ivey. The sharp band, sitting at center stage under the raised platform, includes six pieces: two keyboards, two horns, a bass and drums. The beats are phat and often sultry: Roane’s Little Moe leads a funky, steamy “I Like ’Em Fat Like That” with a lot of bawdy pelvic thrusts, and Parker-Namdar does him one better with a slowed-down dirty burlesque of “Messy Bessy.”
The dancing features lots of shoulder shimmies, hip twists and zippy footwork; “Moe” can be frenetic, yet O’Hara and Easley, working a sexy modern edge, keep the energy coiled. The show is a little frosty, though. With the rich melodies cut to the bone, the sound can get robotic (though the singers are nearly always in good voice, especially when they harmonize). The songs never fully set the stage ablaze, and the lightly comical evening sails by in less than two hours, including intermission. “Moe” has always been cruise-shippy in pace and impact, and it seems especially so as audience members join an insipid conga line at the end of Act 1.
Then again, this is Arena’s eighth musical in just more than two years, from the now-playing and well-judged “Fiddler on the Roof” on the Fichandler Stage to the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a Janis Joplin tribute (twice) and a string of misfire standbys. That’s jabbing a lot of cotton candy at audiences. Conga!
A musical by Clarke Peters featuring Louis Jordan’s greatest hits. Directed by Robert O’Hara. Lights, Alex Jainchill; sound design, Lindsay Jones; projections, Jeff Sugg. About 1 hour and 50 minutes. Through Dec. 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $50-$99, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.