Three Mo' Tenors
nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
September 24, 2007
Over the course of Three Mo' Tenors, only one song is reprised—Ahrens and Flaherty's anthem from Ragtime, "Make them Hear You"—and these performers certainly do demand our attention with their impressive vocal instruments and wide-ranging musicianship. The three singers ("Cast 1" on the night I saw the show) convincingly muscle their way through ten wildly different styles of music, from three well-sung opera arias at the top of the show to contemporary pop Broadway, Queen, Ray Charles, and medleys of classic soul tunes, new-school hip-hop and traditional spirituals. Add to that effective choreography and a commanding stage presence from all three of them, and there is no doubt that we are in the presence of significant entertainers. You can see why the show was successful on tour and on PBS's Great Performances—it's a series of big finishes, strong enough to hold your attention between pledge breaks on PBS.
Director Marion J. Caffey crafts the show to elicit an almost Pavlovian response from the audience, but to his credit I never lost sight of the three individuals who were working so hard to give us a good time. While the show does feature an amplified band, sound designer Domonic Sack judiciously mikes the singers just enough to give them presence in the heavily carpeted room over the drums and guitar. Michael Carnahan's set and Richard Winkler's lights are marvelously efficient, providing rock concert variety without ever upstaging the talent on the stage.
Phumzile Sojola clearly outshines his co-stars. His singing of "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto felt a bit heavy for his beautiful, light lyric tenor voice, but he fills everything else he does with an infectious delight. His performance of "Dali Wam," a pop song form his native South Africa, was the first moment in the show where I could kick back and let his joy wash over me. Sojola approaches every song he sings with curiosity and respect, and therefore seems the most genuine of the three performers, while also opening for us the widest range of response to his material.
Ramone Diggs has perhaps an even larger stage presence, and his beautiful voice has an unusually deep and rich tone while still being able to float beautifully through a soft piece like "La Reve" from Massenet's Manon. While he is given the most tender and ingratiating material, Diggs seems more to pose as vulnerable than to genuinely reveal himself. He either smiles like a precocious little boy, or he glowers at us to show he can be dramatic. My focus remained on his virtuosity, rather than surrendering to the sensual or aesthetic pleasures of the stories he sings. Kenneth Alston, Jr., on the other hand, shows the pluck of an old vaudeville performer. Vocally he doesn't have the ease and beauty of the other two singers, but he's always generous and eager to please, without succumbing to Diggs's emotional posturing.
The show is at its best in the second act when the creators keep tongue firmly in cheek through a series of pop favorites. My absolute favorite moment was their performance of "Midnight Train to Georgia," sans Gladys Knight's lead vocals. It is a savvy bit of comedy, cleverly surprising the audience without asking them to stray from familiar ground. The show's roots are in Las Vegas, not New York theatre, and when it stays close to those roots, Three Mo' Tenors doesn't disappoint.
Throughout the show, however, I detected a note of falseness that nagged at me. In the press release for the show, creator Caffey says that he hopes the show will "elevate the stature of African American musical performers in the world. Our goal is to sing our way into history." That allusion to history bubbles beneath the surface of the show, lending steam to the proceedings, but it is never allowed to coalesce into a coherent statement. The most effective material was originally presented by African American pop performers, and the spirituals that close the show evoke slavery and the civil rights movement. For regular New York theatergoers, the final encore—that reprise of "Make Them Hear You"—can't fail to evoke Ragtime's inspirational story of interracial struggle. But for me those deeper connotations only cast shadows on the bright pizzazz of the revue.
Likewise, the particular ecstasies of opera are used to lure us in, but are not ultimately delivered. At the end of the show, the cast acknowledges the recently deceased Luciano Pavarotti—according to them, "the greatest tenor of them all," without whom they would not be appearing as Three Mo' Tenors. Despite the opening arias, there is precious little opera on the program; they owe more of a debt to Pavarotti's marketing genius than to his singing. By adapting Pavarotti's branding, Caffey has opened doors to international tours, an off-Broadway run, and unusual earning potential for African American singers on the legit stage. But to elevate the stature of African Americans they would have to compete with major artists, such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Pryce, not to mention Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and James Brown. Neither the material nor the performers show that level of artistic vision or depth, and their claims to greatness overburden the impressive but ultimately workmanlike versatility on display. If they were to prune the show of such pretensions, I would have relaxed and had a better time.