I know Gershwin's "Summertime" very well, but when Nova Y. Payton sang it in 3 Mo' Divas, I felt as if I'd never heard the song before. I had always thought of it as a lullaby, sensuous in its evocation of hot summer days but essentially gentle. Stopping to scat at one point with guitarist Chuck Pierce, Payton made it into something harder-edged and more sexual, sometimes playful, sometimes yearning. So instead of sliding comfortably into a warm bath of feeling, the way you do when you hear a familiar song, I found myself off-guard, listening intently to every word, note and phrase. Payton performed the same magic with "My Funny Valentine." Her rendition of this condescending, pretty song was so tender and vulnerable that it became not only new, but profound.
Payton's phrasing is original, and her voice is a wonder in terms of both sound and versatility. She can come up with the kind of chiming, bell-like head voice I associate with Nell Carter, backing it with chest-deep power, and she can also make her soprano spiral off into branching tendrils, ethereal as daffodil down and sweet as spun sugar.
But Payton isn't the only gargantuan talent on display. 3 Mo' Divas began as producer Marion J. Caffey's response to the Three Tenors concerts. Knowing how rarely male black singers were cast as opera leads, he created an evening of song for three black tenors. For Divas, which he put together in 2006, he wanted to find singers who were equally at home with opera, Broadway musicals, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, rock and even disco. In Payton, Laurice Lanier and Jamet Pittman, he hit the jackpot. Pittman has a smooth, sure soprano, and Lanier a mezzo soprano so rich and strong that it sometimes feels as if she's channeling emotion from the very bowels of the earth. When she sings "Strange Fruit" — a soul-searing rendition artfully married to Miguel Sandoval's "Lament," with Pittman producing swooping arcs of pure, crystalline sound to circle Lanier's aching chords of lamentation — she speaks to the deepest part of the American soul, the part where good and evil vie for ascendancy, and where we face the darkness, gleaming sorrow and shameful violence of our collective past.
There's no plot to this evening of theater, no theme expressed in the choice of songs and no obvious sequence — just three women wearing gorgeous costumes and singing on an elegant art-deco set, accompanied by pianist-director Annastasia Victory and a talented seven-member band. There's some directorial silliness centering on the diva concept, but otherwise the show is about voices, the kind of voices that make you feel that if only the gods were generous, you, too, could throw back your head, open your throat and sing like that — the same way your body poises unconsciously for flight when you watch a ballet dancer leap.
The material includes everything from Puccini to "Defying Gravity," from the syrupy score of Wicked (if anyone could make me like this music, it would be Payton), to "Little Shop of Horrors" and Ragtime's "Your Daddy's Son," as well as "God Bless the Child," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and a lovely rendition of "Everything Must Change," for which Pittman accompanies herself on the piano. It seems a bit silly, these amazing ladies singing pop and disco — like Einstein filling teeth or a mountain lion doing stupid pet tricks — but it was still fun watching them shake their fingers and warn us, "My Boyfriend's Back."
And at one point, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears. It came when the trio launched into "Feeling Good" from Roar of the Greasepaint. I knew Gil Price, the extraordinary baritone who stopped the show with this song when it opened on Broadway many years ago, and who received rapturous reviews ("I realized that I had been listening to the most marvelous natural baritone I had ever encountered in my life," said musicologist Caldwell Titcomb of a Price performance). As the women sang the number — not in the rapturous way that Gil had, but with a heavy, vampy beat — I kept remembering how he and I had rehearsed A Taste of Honey together for an acting class in his New York apartment, his humor and playfulness, the way he'd tried to coax me into singing with him when we actually performed the scene for the class. Despite the whisper-thin premise, 3 Mo' Divas felt good on a deep level because of the way the performers made every song significant, evoking long-buried images and emotions. The way I felt, for instance, on the dusty stage of that acting studio as Gil veered off script, held out his hand and began to sing: excruciating embarrassment, a flicker of pride because he was singing directly to me, and pure joy when I finally let go of everything else and allowed myself simply to hear.