September 29, 2007

The Highs and Lows of "Three Mo' Tenors"

It's not a good sign when there are empty seats on the opening night of a show. But that's how it was for Three Mo' Tenors, the staged concert that opened at the Little Shubert Theatre this past Thursday evening. The show, one of the many variations on the lucrative series of concerts that opera's golden-throated boys Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras launched in the '90s, features three African-American tenors performing a range of musical genres from operatic arias to Broadway show tunes.

But unlike the original trio, the Mo' tenors are unknowns. And that was the problem for me and my niece Jennifer. There are two alternating casts in this production and the three we saw—Kenneth D. Alston Jr., Phumzile Sojola and
Ramone Diggs—seemed game for anything and good at much of it (click here to see excerpts from the show), but no more so than the scores of other talented singers you can hear in Broadway, off-Broadway and even off-off Broadway shows, not to mention in cabarets and clubs around New York. Shouldn't these tenors, like the ones who inspired their act, be the best around?

Director Marion J. Caffey, who created the concept for the show, has tried to make a virtue of his stars' anonymity, explaining in various interviews that classically trained black singers, as all of his performers are, have fewer opportunities and thus fewer chances to make a name for themselves. "Black tenors are not often used in operas," he has said. "So they have to sing in other styles simply to make a living." In other words, they know how to do more, or mo'. And, indeed, Three Mo’ Tenors prides itself on the number of styles its singers perform.

The evening starts off with Verdi but then quickly veers into Broadway power ballads from shows like Les Misérables, Ragtime and Jekyll & Hyde. The second act is even more pop-oriented with tributes to performers including rhythm and bluesman Ray Charles, the '70s rock band Queen and even Gladys Knight's soulful Pips, plus a round of spirituals and gospel tunes. The opening night audience loved all of it—respectfully admiring of the opera, clapping and swaying in time to the R&B numbers, waving arms in the air to Queen's stadium anthems. Even Jennifer, who can be fussy about her theater and was making it clear that she wasn't happy about the first act, got into it by the end and was taking up the singers' invitation to sing along with some of the more familiar tunes.

I love a '60s-era soul song as much as the next Baby Boomer. And I appreciate the hard work of the tenors who made quick off-stage costume changes in between their often-choreographed solo, duet and group numbers. I particularly liked Diggs, a lanky, rubber-faced charmer with quick comedic timing and a compelling stage presence. He handled every genre with a light ease and yet there was an underlying melancholy that made me wish someone would write a musical about the vaudevillian Bert Williams, the first black headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies whom W.C. Fields called "the funniest man I ever saw—and the saddest man I ever knew," and cast Diggs in the role (If you’re interested, Caryl Phillips recounts Williams' life in his wonderful novel "Dancing in the Dark").

Still, I think I might have enjoyed Three Mo' Tenors more if I lived somewhere besides New York. I'm spoiled by the incredibly high level of talent in this city and the ability to see it whenever I'd like. Other places aren't as lucky. Three Mo' Tenors has spent the last six years successfully traveling around the country and abroad. An earlier version of the show—with different tenors—was even filmed for PBS. But there's a small town feel about the show and I don't know if it can survive the big-city competition here in New York. Which may explain those empty seats on opening night.

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