‘American Idol’ recap: Top 13 tackle Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder

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Let’s take – shall we? – the challenge Ryan Seacrest presented to judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler on ‘American Idol’ on Wednesday night. Season 11’s top 13 had just performed. The girls had stepped up and sung – overall (and with notable exceptions), fairly impressively, given the challenges of the material -- the songs of Whitney Houston. The boys had bounced through and crooned – more evenly, but less interestingly -- Stevie Wonder songs. Which two contestants were standouts, Seacrest asked the judges, and which two were likely most in danger?

Taking only the first part of the question, Jackson pegged Joshua Bedet, who had begun the evening with a come-to-Jesus take on ‘I Wish,’ skipping around the stage as we had not yet seen him do, and Jessica Sanchez, whose rendition of Houston’s signature song, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ had provided the show’s most electrifying moment and proved, beyond a doubt, her vocal prowess. Jackson called them ‘crazy good’ and ‘flawless.’ (Earlier, Jackson had stumbled while groping to apply the word ‘flawless’ to Ledet’s performance, calling it instead ‘flavorless.’ Ah, Freud.)


And in trouble? The unenviable task of naming those names initially fell to Lopez, who reluctantly threw under the proverbial bus Shannon Magrane. Magrane’s rendition of ‘I Have Nothing’ was over-delivered and under-impressive, with growls, grimaces, gesticulations and deep knee bends standing in for melody and musicality. If Magrane’s performance hadn’t damned her enough, Lopez had done it during the judge critique, which she ominously began, ‘Oh, sweet baby …'

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Tyler, in what may have been his clearest moment of the evening, tackled the triumph-failure topic head-on. He was worried about ‘Elise [Testone] and Shannon,’ and the two standout performers for him were ‘Jessica Sanchez and Jessica Sanchez.’

Testone, who’d agreed to switch songs at the last minute under the possibly specious advice of mentor Jimmy Iovine and guest mentor Mary J. Blige, swapping ‘The Greatest Love of All’ for ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight,’ had very obviously failed to impress the judges at the top of the show. It ‘wasn’t your greatest performance,’ Jackson had said, saying he felt Testone was ‘boxing with the song.’ Me, I actually thought Testone did pretty well, from a music perspective, though you could see her working hard to get the timing right. Her voice has an appealingly gruff resonance I thought she managed to showcase. Of course, the judges’ comments alone may put her in danger.

But given that Thursday night’s elimination round will follow an unusual procedure, in which Seacrest will reveal the lowest vote getter among the boys and the girls, leaving it to the judges to determine which of the two will be sacrificed and which spared, let’s divvy things up by gender as we answer Seacrest’s best-worst challenge.

The two best female performances of the night? Let’s see … Sanchez, clearly. But who else? I’d say it’s a tossup between Skylar Laine and Hollie Cavanagh for the second standout slot. Laine’s ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go’ succeeded not only in bringing country flavor to Houston’s material but also really did, as the judges noted, prove Laine can connect with pretty much any song and send it soaring. Cavanagh, meanwhile, proved her mettle with a pitch-perfect ‘All The Man That I Need.’

FULL COVERAGE: ‘American Idol’ And the worst? Magrane, whom I have never found to be a terribly authentic performer. And … well, yeah, I guess either Testone or Erika Van Pelt. Though the judges loved Van Pelt. Her performance of ‘I Believe in You and Me’ was believable (to you and me) but some of the other female performers were strong enough to make her look a little weak by comparison. And the fact that Van Pelt wasn’t a fan favorite going in, and rather a judge ‘wild card’ pick, may make her particularly vulnerable to early elimination.

As for the boys, I probably enjoyed Phillip Phillips’ rock-band rendition of ‘Superstition’ the most, but I wonder if the fact that he was doing at least as much guitar playing as singing will hurt him in the long run. Then again, given ‘Idol’ voters’ established predilection for cute young white guys, Phillips could probably just stand there and smile and make it through at least the next few rounds, if not all the way to a win. Vocally, I’d have to hand the ‘best’ honors to Ledet and DeAndre Brackensick. The latter’s take on ‘Master Blaster’ was probably his most praiseworthy performance since the Vegas group round. And it was mercifully devoid of distracting hair flipping. (He really should keep it tied back like that.)

Worst … hmmm … honestly, I know Iovine, whose opinion is generally reliable, loves Jermaine Jones, but I kind of don’t. His take on ‘Knocks Me Off My Feet’ didn’t knock me off my feet. But more than that, I find his whole vibe a bit stiff and strange, almost priggish. I wouldn’t be heartbroken if the audience chose to send him home again.

The other two fellows I think could be in danger? Lopez fave Jeremy Rosado’s ‘Ribbon in the Sky’ failed to tie up in a pretty package a rationale for his having earned a coveted wild-card slot, leaving him potentially at a loose end. And (though it saddens me to say) Heejun Han, who showed the limits of his range and performance style with his take on ‘All In Love Is Fair.’ As much personality as Han has when he is not singing, when he opens his mouth to let out that incongruously pretty voice of his, everything but his vocal cords seem to freeze up. If he can’t find a way to integrate some of his lively persona into his performances, he’ll be toast.

Oh, and Colton Dixon, the only top 13 contestant I haven’t yet mentioned? He did just fine on ‘Lately,’ reminding me a little of last year’s James Durbin. (Apparently, I’m not the only one to have found Dixon’s performances to be redolent of Durbin’s. Kind of ungracious there, James.) Landing solidly mid-pack, I predict he’ll be safe this week.

Who do you think gave the best performances of the night, and who do you think could be in danger?


‘Idol’ recap: Top 13 boys perform

‘American Idol’ recap: The top 13 are revealed

‘American Idol’ recap: Top 12 ‘ladies’ take the stage

-- Amy Reiter