Caffey's cast covers 400 years of music in new show

WASHINGTON — When Marion J. Caffey created a show called “Three Mo’ Tenors” in 2000, he had no idea that the African-American version of “The Three Tenors” would become such a touring staple. Buoyed by that success, Caffey has produced a female spinoff called “Three Mo’ Divas,” which is being remounted here this week at Arena Stage.

Like “Mo’ Tenors,” “Mo’ Divas,” which bowed July 15-16, features a cast of classically trained vocalists who whip through 400 years of music and eight styles — opera, Broadway, jazz, blues, soul, new school, spiritual and gospel.

Also like “Tenors,” the formula calls for a double cast of artists who split their duties to lessen the vocal demands of the high-energy theatrically staged concert.

The divas of the D.C. cast are Gretha Boston (a Tony winner for “Show Boat”), Andrea Jones-Sojola, N’Kenge, Nina Negri, Jamet Pittman and Vivian Reed.

“Divas” initially was produced in 2004 by the San Diego Repertory Theater, where it enjoyed a successful run and critical acclaim. Columbia Artists even optioned the show for a year, but kept it on the shelf throughout that period, much to Caffey’s dismay.

Its remounting here is a co-production with Studio Arena in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Citadel Theater in Edmonton, Alberta, its next two bookings.

Along with serving as director and choreographer, Caffey is co-producer with Aubrey Dan, Canadian arts patron and president of Dancap Private Equity. Caffey also directed “Cookin’ at the Cookery” at Studio Arena.

“Mo’ Divas” is being dressed for success in its second go-round. A sufficient budget is paying for diva-appropriate costumes by Toni-Lesley James, new lighting by Richard Winkler and a more elaborate set by Dale Jordan. . In addition, new material has been added to maximize the breadth of styles and vocal versatility.

Most important, says Caffey, “Mo’ Divas” is not positioned as an African-American show like its predecessor. Its cast members are not all black, for example, and the music aims for crossover appeal with songs from Celine Dion, Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin, among others. “We span from Puccini to the Pips,” says Caffey. Bach, Strauss, Porter, Gershwin, Sondheim and Ellington also are represented.

Arena Stage clearly hopes the production will become a summertime staple that will attract a diversified audience, just like gospel-style tuner “Crowns,” a huge hit here that Caffey also staged.

So how is the director handling six spirited divas? By giving everyone equal billing and performance time, says Caffey. “The show is a star vehicle, and each one is sharing in it,” he explains. To emphasize the point, Arena offered two opening nights so critics could catch both casts.

Caffey, who refers to his twin shows as “Mo’ Music,” is ready for the next chapter on both fronts. As “Mo’ Tenors” prepares to play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month and a U.S. tour in the fall, he is confident about prospects for his “Divas.”

The next logical step would be a combination of the two acts, but Caffey is stifling the impulse. “Maybe in another year we can talk about it,” he says. “Let’s let ‘Divas’ become a success first.”

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