Laura Mixon makes auditioning appear easy. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Vineyard Idol: a gentle competition

By Joyce Wagner - May 25, 2006

Kaf Warman possesses none of the ditzy emotionalism of Paula Abdul. Taffy McCarthy is the antithesis of the self-apologetic critic Simon Cowell. Yet, on Sunday last, under the guidance of the equally benign Mona Rosenthal, the two judged the first round of the Island equivalent of American Idol.

Mona is wife to Barry Rosenthal, who, with his brother Arthur, owns and operates the nightclub "Outerland" (formerly the Hot Tin Roof). It was she who came up with the idea of holding the competition.

"I'm a total fan of American Idol," Mona admits. "I've watched it from the first season. I noticed ads in newspapers for a lot of local competitions. We have the perfect venue for it. It just made sense."

So, on Sunday morning, at 10 am, Mona, Barry, Taffy, Kaf, and Kevin Ryan who would act as stage manager, waited in the empty club for the first auditioner to arrive. The stage stood bare, save a lone microphone center front. The competitors would have the choice of using the mike or not. An urn of coffee sat on a table outdoors where the participants would arrive, sign in, and fill in some basic information on a goldenrod-colored sheet that would be collected by Kevin. Taffy and Kaf sat behind a table on the dance floor, several feet from the stage. Feedback and a "Nay" or "Yea" would be given on the spot after each audition. Those chosen would be handed another goldenrod sheet that said, among other things, "Congratulations! You're a Yes!"

Judging last Sunday's Vineyard Idol auditions at Outerland, Kaf Warman (left) and Taffy McCarthy were as glamorous as their TV counterparts, but much more encouraging.

Those who made the cut would be contacted later with information regarding the final performance.

The first contestant arrives. She's confident and poised, with the perfect skin and shiny hair of a professional performer, but the tousled casualness of an Islander. Her voice fills the room with her a cappella rendition of "If I Loved You." Her gestures are appropriate and natural. She seems comfortable up there and plays to her small audience. She finishes to the applause of the judges and onlookers.

Taffy gives her feedback. "We're allowed to give comments," she says. "My only comment is that you're just wonderful." The contestant beams as she received the coveted "You're a Yes!" form.

Other contestants follow. One is celebrating her 16th birthday - the age cut-off for the competition. She fidgets self-consciously, standing on the empty stage, waiting for her CD to be cued up. She begins to sing, the self-consciousness slips away, and it's all about the music. She receives a "Yes" and some tips for relaxing before a performance.

Melissa Grassia aims to impress the judges.

Another contestant, who had only heard about the competition that morning at the health club, wows the judges with her big bluesy voice. Not only does she receive a "Yes," but Kaf Warman chases after her when she leaves to cast her in an upcoming production of "Ruthless: The Musical." Kaf had learned only Sunday morning that she had lost a cast member and this young woman perfectly fit the bill. "I was going to call her later," Kaf explains, "then thought, 'why?'"

A young woman arrives - one that was expected. She was lost and phoned for directions. In spite of her travails in arriving, she's calm and smiling - ready to sing. Her long, brown curly hair frames her dimpled cheeks as her soft, clear voice alternately booms and softens on "Since I Don't Have You."

She receives the goldenrod "Yes" form and lets out a whoop. She exits dancing, swinging her arms and blowing kisses. Taffy quips, "Now that's how girls get on TV."

One contestant sings beautifully, but with her eyes closed throughout the song. Again, the judges are gentle. Kaf suggests, "If you close your eyes, you turn all your energy back into yourself."

Taffy adds, "You have to make the audience your friends. Don't disconnect from them."

Contender Cassidy Look flashes a big grin.

The girl was a yes.

She is invited back to perform, probably with a live band, at the official Vineyard Idol competition sometime in the summer, where the audience will make the final judgments.

At 3 pm, the exhausted panelists pack up. They've culled seven finalists - all young women, all with magnificent voices, but with variations in confidence and stage presence. Few males auditioned, and those who did were under the age cut-off. They were allowed to perform for the experience and feedback, and were dismissed with kindness.

Later, Taffy explains the judges' lack of meanness, "It takes courage to be on stage. We want them to succeed. They're not being criticized. They want to know."

And that's the difference, really, between the often too cruel American Idol and the benevolent competition of Vineyard Idol.

But, then, in general, isn't that usually a major difference between on-Island and off?

Joyce Wagner, freelance writer and author of the newly released "Random Overthoughts," lives in Orange, N.H. and frequently writes for The Times