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Director cooks again, with 'Divas'

THEATER REVIEW

March 23, 2004|Don Braunagel | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — "Three Mo' Divas," a fine female riff on the "Three Tenors" phenomenon, should add to creator Marion J. Caffey's annuities while showcasing some soaring vocal talent.

Caffey won acclaim by conceiving, directing and choreographing "Three Mo' Tenors," featuring African American men, so this sequel seems a natural. And he picked the San Diego Repertory Theatre for its premiere because of the warm reception the Rep gave his "Cooking at the Cookery," a musical bio of blues vocalist Alberta Hunter, last year.

"Divas" is subtitled "A Concert Celebration of the African American Diva Voice" and aims to demonstrate seven singing styles from four centuries of history. That it does, and it's a delight to see the threesome segue through the genres with vocal and physical versatility.

The show's demands are so strenuous that it is double-cast, with the singers alternating performances. That, coupled with a song lineup that varies from show to show, means repeat visits are likely. Underscoring the equality of the talent, the casts are designated 1 and A. This review covers Saturday evening's debut of Cast A: Henrietta Davis, Jamet Pittman and N'Kenge Simpson-Hoffman.

All six singers appearing in "Divas" have operatic backgrounds, and it's immediately evident. For the opening selections -- arias including "Quando m'en Vo" from "La Boheme" and "Vissi d'arte" from "Tosca" -- Davis, Pittman and Simpson-Hoffman, elegantly dressed in black gowns, sublimely displayed range and power.

They glided through the requisite spectrum, including blues, Broadway, jazz, soul, spiritual and gospel.

Simpson-Hoffman, the most physical of the group, gets an abundance of showy numbers, such as "Fascinating Rhythm," and an audience-participation "Minnie the Moocher." But highlights also include Pittman's plaintive "Stormy Weather" and a heart-rending arrangement blending Pittman and Davis on "Strange Fruit" and "Lament." The effect was that of being transported from La Scala to a Chicago cabaret to a Southern church service.

Dale Jordan's set silhouettes the seven-piece orchestra, headed by pianist Joseph Joubert, behind a scrim between African-design panels. For some numbers, bandstands slide in.

Derek Brener's sound design provides comfort and clarity, although it suffered opening-night microphone glitches. Melanie Watnick dresses the cast in sync with each song, notably in Simpson-Hoffman's jacketless zoot suit for "Minnie" and glittery tops for a soul medley.

Caffey needs to tweak the lineup. "Let the Good Times Roll," seemingly a signal that the program is about to get livelier, is followed by the poignant "Your Daddy's Son" from "Ragtime." Although Pittman does it movingly, it's a mood bring-down. And the closing gospel medley should be followed by a number more rousing. For an audience ready to swing with the Divas, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" just isn't danceable enough.

*

`Three Mo' Divas'

Where: San Diego Rep's Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego

When: Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays 2 and 7 p.m. No performance today; matinee at 2 March 27.

Ends: April 18

Price: $25.50-$42.50

Contact: (619) 544-1000

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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