Photo credit: courtesy of Martin Vidnovic
Martin Vidnovic brought a touch of Vegas at its cheesiest to The Green Room 42 in “Broadway and Beyond,” a program of standards featuring the Broadway veteran’s brazen baritenor and a barrage of corny jokes.
Granted, there is a significant overlap between the art forms of cabaret and musical theater—but that doesn’t mean that a master of one genre can cross over without retooling some key elements of his or her skill set. A musical theater performance is successful to the extent that it builds and sustains a convincing and effective illusion. A cabaret performance succeeds by using song to strip away the mask that separates singer and audience. In musical theater, songs are one of several modalities by which an audience experiences a larger story. In cabaret, the songs are the story.
Vidnovic showed himself to be a compelling musical theater performer in a mini-medley of At Night She Comes Home To Me and With You from Richard Maltby and David Shire’s Baby, in which he originated the role of Nick Sakarian on Broadway. Eyes focused in the middle distance, he sang these nuanced ballads with restraint, from inside a richly imagined scene. The roomful of high-spirited fans loved it, and so did I. He was equally compelling in Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas, which he translated for us before singing in French. I can’t help suspecting that he was able to get inside the song because he translated it; but, by whatever mechanism, he had made a series of choices about what the song meant to him, and manifested those choices in performance. Again, the eyes focused in the middle distance. Again, the audience seemed to fall away. Again, there was dynamic variety and vocal nuance. Just a roomful of people all experiencing a song. That’s good cabaret.
As for the rest of the show, well—ring-a-ding-ding! Vidnovic strutted, pointed, indicated, and oversang song after unexamined song, to the evident delight of the aforementioned high-spirited fans. His voice, like the heart of Jud Fry, whom he also played on Broadway, is “as big as all outdoors,” and he sang as if he were indeed outdoors, utilizing the grand resonating chamber that is his head to the exclusion of the emotional chamber that is his heart. At its best, his sound recalled a mature Robert Goulet.
Vidnovic could be a middle-aged Alan Alda’s twin; a fit, attractive 69-year-old with a good-natured grin and an impish energy. Years on the stage seem to have given him a sense of his own divine right to be there, and this shameless confidence went a long way toward mitigating his most blatantly Vegas moments. But those moments abounded nonetheless—in his patter, which alternated between “This next song is by …” and some rather obvious jokes that mostly failed to land (which he took in good part); but more importantly in the bulk of the songs, which, rather than interpreting, he treated solely as vehicles for showing off his aging but still mighty voce.
The archetype of the cheesy Vegas entertainer is based upon an externally focused (nudge-nudge-wink-wink) insincerity. Certainly, Vidnovic had no desire to be insincere; rather, I think his focus was misplaced. In musical theater, Vidnovic’s natural home, the writers have something to say, and say it through the performers. In cabaret, the performer has something to say, and says it through song. Having spent over four decades on and around the Broadway stage, Vidnovic (I’m convinced) has quite a lot to say. But he needs to find his own authentic cabaret “voice” in order to put his prodigious, muscular instrument into the service of communication, rather than abandoning his songs to wander aimlessly in search of an “author.”
At the piano, the excellent James Followell, as is his wont, followed well. He also sang a little.