Review: Caffey's 'Three Mo' Tenors' Off-Broadway


Special to Newsday

September 28, 2007

Near the end of "Three Mo' Tenors," the singers stop to give tribute to "greatest tenor of them all," Luciano Pavarotti.

It's a bittersweet nod, not so much because the starriest of the original "Three Tenors" recently died but because the pandering pop smorgasbord that is "Three Mo' Tenors" represents the less lofty legacy of the King of the High C's. The show seems inspired not so much by the immortal Pavarotti of the operatic stage and recordings, as by the crossover tenor who performed with the Spice Girls and U2.

Indeed, there's so little opera and so much pop and R&B in this odd, slickly produced show - directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey - that the association with the vaunted "Three Tenors" brand almost qualifies as false advertising.

The first act opens with a quick glance at the opera house, a stride through Broadway and a dash of hi-de-ho. The second act turns into an oldies-radio jukebox musical that rifles through Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Ray Charles, the Carpenters and Queen. (Choice lyric: "3MT will rock you!")

This emphasis is relatively savvy, as the singers on the night reviewed (who alternate with three other tenors) mostly come off better the further they get from the opera repertoire. Only Victor Robertson has the piercing upper register and vigorous diction that mark him as a probable operatic leading man. He's charming but less convincing in his role as a scat-singing hipster.

Duane A. Moody has a thin, buttery tenor in his operatic moments, but emerges strongly as an all-stops-out gospel and blues shouter who makes every note of florid melisma count.

James N. Berger Jr. (who sounds closer to a baritone than a tenor) seems tentative with a Barber aria and with Sondheim's "Being Alive," but he blossoms as a Zoot-suited Cab Calloway and, later, as a James Ingram-style R&B crooner.

The second half successfully melds these three into a credible singing group. Though there are some ludicrous boy-band moments, a series of medleys - of Ray Charles tunes, of old school and "new school" soul - appealingly showcase the trio's harmony and chemistry. This section also contains the show's only evidence of wit, as they sing the Pips' part, minus Gladys Knight, from "Midnight Train to Georgia."

By this point, the trio's tuxes are long gone, a crack four-piece band is rocking behind them and we're closer to Vegas than to the Met. That's fine, I guess. It's an awkward thing to defend the purity of the original "Three Tenors" concept, since that was just a marketing ploy to trot out three huge opera stars. Still, they were three huge opera stars; "Three Mo' Tenors" is three guys with decent resumes chugging and mugging their way through a no-brow song anthology with the sole organizing idea that they're African-American men who sing in a slightly higher register than many.

Somehow I don't think that's the high note that Pavarotti, even at his most crassly populist, was reaching for.

THREE MO' TENORS. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey. Through Jan. 28 at the Little Shubert Theatre, 422 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-239-6200. Seen Monday.