NEW YORK — Taking their final bows on the opening night of "Three Mo' Tenors" at the Little Shubert Theatre, the stars saluted Luciano Pavarotti. "Without him," they added warmly, "no us." A handsome gesture, but the line of succession is more wish than fact.
Conceived by creator, director and choreographer Marion J. Caffey as a "theatrical concert," the show has supposedly been playing to sold-out houses across the country and internationally since 2001. Now it has landed on New York's Theater Row for a "limited engagement" -- code for one the producer hopes to keep extending forever.
That just might happen. The gimmick is that all the singers are black and classically trained; the claim is that they can do it all: opera, Broadway, jazz, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, new school, spirituals, gospel -- a range of styles spanning four centuries (with a heavy skew to the 20th). "The tenors of 'Three Mo' Tenors' embody a musical repertoire of extraordinary breadth," says Mr. Caffey. "Through song and dance, we hope to elevate the stature of African-American musical performers in the world. Our goal is to sing our way into history."
Well, on every front but one, that war was won long ago. Surely Mr. Caffey remembers such legends as Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, Muddy Waters, Bobby Short, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, James Brown, Bob Marley, Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Prince, Michael Jackson . . . None billed himself as a tenor, of course. But then, the term simply indicates a voice range: the highest of the three standard ranges of adult males. Distinguishing tenors from baritones or basses makes little difference in popular genres.
In classical music it matters a lot -- and most of all in opera, the black male singer's last frontier. Apart from George Shirley, a tenor of grace and refinement who came up in the 1960s, or the commanding if unpolished bass-baritone Simon Estes, who crested in the late 1970s, the considerable galaxy of black opera stars -- sopranos, mezzos, altos -- is made up overwhelmingly of women. And what women! Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman . . . the list goes on.
On the evidence, "Three Mo' Tenors" will do little to right the balance. Unlike the original Three Tenors -- Pavarotti, of course, plus Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, each an icon in his own right -- the Three Mo' are fungible, a fact driven home by the fact that Mr. Caffey has actually fielded two coequal full sets, performing on alternating evenings.
The opening-night audience, something short of capacity, heard Kenneth Alston Jr., Ramone Diggs and Phumzile Sojola ("Cast 1"). The alternate cast ("Cast A") comprises James N. Berger Jr., Duane A. Moody and Victor Robertson, who sing the same ensemble numbers but different solos. And there's also a standby, Sean Miller.
The tenors' operatic credentials, as captured in the bios, range from respectable to thin. And while none lists a major role with a major company, some have indeed tackled major roles in less-stellar surroundings. Opera is a tough racket. Any singer who can get through a lead in "La Bohème," "The Barber of Seville" or "Carmen" on any stage has accomplished something to be proud of. But then, the same applies on Broadway or in a jazz cellar or recital hall. According to one study, a live performer in any medium, at any level of accomplishment, experiences the same stresses as a soldier going into battle. Make of the science what you will.
Excellence is a separate matter. "Three Mo' Tenors" opens with a three-way rendition of "La donna è mobile," the Duke's hit tune from "Rigoletto," performed in tails. The opening-night cast came out smiling and gamely made a hash of the fancy bits. Then each man sang an aria on his own. Mr. Sojola, of Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, led the way with the dashing "Questa o quella," another aria of the Duke's. His roly-poly build and full moon of a face recalled the late, lamented Luciano. His tone glowed with a sunny sweetness. And he looked at ease in the spotlight. But classical technique? You'll hear better at the conservatory. Mr. Alston, from the Bronx, wiry and in dreadlocks, introduced himself as a countertenor, offering "Ombra mai fu," popularly known as Handel's "Largo," delivered with touching sincerity and suspect vowels. The tall, lanky Mr. Diggs, of Amarillo, Texas, came to grief in "Le Rêve," from Massenet's "Manon," which must float high and light like spun silk. Instead, the line was tense, the pitch sagged, and the singer's demeanor was that of a whipped puppy.
Once past the operatic segment, it got better, thank heaven. Mr. Sojola's honeyed sound shed its grace on "Bring Him Home," the teary ballad from "Les Misérables." Returning for "Who Can I Turn To," from "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd," Mr. Diggs was simply a different person: confident, communicative, and in charge. Mr. Alston, back in the tenor register, shone in the traditional "Noways Tired." But most of the best licks came when all three joined forces, as in "Make Them Hear You," an anthem from "Ragtime," sung with dignity and ardor; or in a good-time call-and-response number from South Africa, designed for audience participation. The highlight of the evening was an arc of spirituals, sung not as a vehicle for showy emotionalism but simply, deeply, truly.
Changing outfits -- a variety of jackets, a bit of native costume for the South African segment -- gave the proceedings a touch of flash, as did Richard Winkler's rainbow array of lighting effects. Without placing great demands on their dancing skills, Mr. Caffey's steps made the singers look coordinated, hip and sassy. At the piano, Keith Burton, the (white) music director, accompanied the arias that opened the concert in purely supportive fashion. From then on, the singers had the benefit of Fabiola Leon and Etienn Litel on keyboards, Carl Carter on bass, and Steve Williams on drums -- a combo unfazed by any idiom thrown at them.
Audiences who love this celebration of Black Pride and versatility will want to know that Mr. Caffey is expanding the franchise with "Three Mo' Divas" -- divas, be it noted, not sopranos, which sets the bar rather high. They start an American road tour on Sunday in San Antonio. The Web site www.3modivas.com lists over two-dozen one-night stands through February, with extended engagements in Toronto and Denver to follow.
Divas -- personalities! -- are more precious commodities than mere tenors. Think Josephine Baker, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Eartha Kitt, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé Knowles . . . If Mr. Caffey's stable lives up to his hopeful hype, we ain't seen nothin' yet.