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Three Mo' Tenors

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

James N. Berger Jr., Victor Robertson, and Duane A. Moody
Photo by Aaron Epstein.

It's impossible to think of Three Mo' Tenors, the black opera-fusion revue that just opened at the Little Shubert Theatre, without thinking of Luciano Pavarotti.

The big-voiced, big-living, and big-of-stature singing star, who died three weeks ago, embodied popular opera for millions all over the world in a way that his Three Tenors compatriots, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, never quite have. So imposing do his spirit, image, and voice remain that the three young singers at the heart of Marion J. Caffey's show are forced to pay him homage in the show's final moments, even pointing out that without his influence, their show wouldn't have gotten where it is. This is undoubtedly correct. What's less clear is how much of a loss that would be.

The two-hour evening is prevented from reaching any noteworthy heights by the very concept that fostered its creation: the uniting of classical music with Broadway, pop, spiritual, gospel, and more into a celebration of the African-American musical aesthetic. Each of the seven cast members - two groups of three alternate performances, and there's one general-purpose understudy - has a Playbill bio loaded with opera credits, and at least judging by the three I saw (James N. Berger, Jr., Duane A. Moody, and Victor Robertson), no shortage of charm. But because Three Mo' Tenors never takes full advantage of the uniqueness of their talents, we're never convinced these are people we want or need to get to know.

Berger, Moody, and Robertson were most alive and captivating in the opening number, which not only reimagined Verdi's "La donna è mobile" (from Rigoletto) as a challenge sing-off, but was performed - as far as my ears could tell - without microphones. This glorious moment allows you to experience all of the color, shading, and technique that the performers have striven since childhood to accrue, and experience the music the way it was intended to be heard: completely live. It was as if conceiver-director-choreographer Caffey were acknowledging the oft-unstated truth that opera singers never sound better than when they're allowed to sound natural. The rest of the show proved as shamelessly and lifelessly amplified as most of what musical theatre fans are forced to endure today.

But the problem is less the sound than the choice of the material, which does little to support or reflect these artists' true gifts or personalities. Their singing from the contemporary Broadway catalog (ranging from Company's "Being Alive" to Ragtime's "Make Them Hear You" and counting some Once On This Island and Five Guys Named Moe along the way) forces them to compete, often unfavorably, with still-living singers' indelible performances. Tackling soul hits like "Love Train" or "My Girl," or New School selections like "If I Ain't Got You" or "Ordinary People" make them come across like any other black singing group riding too-familiar coattails into airport-lounge success. And does anyone want, or need, to hear opera singers belt "We Will Rock You" as the Act II opener?

Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras scored with their Three Tenors concerts by focusing primarily on what they did best, and as a result helped encourage the masses to sample a musical genre generally considered inaccessible. Three Mo' Tenors is too willing to give audiences what they already know and love, without giving them the opportunities to explore songs and voices they might otherwise ignore; however enjoyable the show is (and it's frequently a fair amount of fun) you still experience the nagging feeling you aren't seeing these people at their absolute best.

They are remarkable singers, though, and their versatility carries them farther than might be the case with lesser performers. My favorite of the trio I saw was Moody, who seemed to possess the most star quality, and displayed both a genuine sense of humor and unaffected likeability Berger and Robertson didn't match. In his 11 o'clock solo, "Noways Tired," Moody dropped his good-guy persona in order to connect with the deeper, sadder overtones present in so much of the black musical oeuvre that Caffey otherwise ignores.

It's only during this number that any recognizable humanity seeps through the synthetic surroundings and demands to be acknowledged on its own terms, even if it still seems that Moody and his costars would be better served by a vehicle highlighting what makes them different from everyone else rather than what makes them the same. As it is, it's too difficult for Three Mo' Tenors to score when working so diligently from others' pre-established playbooks.

Three Mo' Tenors
Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street between 9th Avenue and Dwyer Street
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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