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Changes improve 'American Idol' live, but few are paying attention

Changes improve 'American Idol' live, but few are paying attention
2015 "American Idol" winner Nick Fradiani performs during the show's summer tour. (Ken Phillips)

About halfway into the "American Idol" concert at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, finalist Jax grabbed a young girl from the audience while singing Steven Tyler's "Love Is Your Name."

It was a nod to the moment Jax shared with the rock icon and former "Idol" judge during the show's season finale a few months ago.

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Unfortunately, the tween froze in the spotlight, and nothing Jax did — putting her arm around her, whispering in her ear, dancing and spinning her around — could save the moment.

That awkwardness encapsulates where "American Idol," now in production on its final season, currently resides in the zeitgeist.

Although ratings are down from record highs, there remains a loyal fan base, albeit one consisting mostly of older adults and their grandchildren. And no matter what great talent the show has or the changes it tries, many of them good ones, it seems impossible to pull in the targeted, passionate and highly coveted demo of young adults who will probably be seeing Taylor Swift at Staples Center over the next week.

"Idol's" annual summer tour, an almost last hurrah of sorts for that season's batch of contestants and the victory lap for the champion, once packed arenas such as Staples with tens of thousands of adoring fans.

But through the years, as the show's ratings and reach slipped, the tour has downsized. It played the Greek, where more than a quarter of the venue's 5,900 seats were masked off, last year and the Microsoft Theatre (formerly Nokia Theatre, where the show's glitzy finale is taped) before that.

The 2,000-capacity Orpheum made room for this year's "up close and personal" billing, the show's way of promoting an event that slashed the number of finalists performing to the top five — instead of the usual 10.

Although there were a few empty rows scattered about, the nicely sized Orpheum audience was averse to any real, effusive interaction with the performers unless it was their personal favorite, and even then it was tough going.

Besides the children who sometimes ran up and down the aisles when not aimlessly shooting video on tablets, the audience rarely did more than applaud after a song, sheepishly clap when asked to do so or shout after their favorite singer hit a high note or a good vocal run.

Rayvon Owen, who has made a second home of L.A., got several shout-outs, and this year's "Idol" winner, Nick Fradiani, had one older, bespectacled woman seated near me who was absolutely over the moon for his closing set.

There were just the five finalists — Jax, Owen and Fradiani along with Clark Beckham and Tyanna Jones. There were no oversized video screens or staged platforms other than one for the backing band at the rear (yes, after no band last year, show organizers wised up). There was just a simple "American Idol" curtain behind them and a sleek lighting setup.

The intimacy, seemingly a downgrade, was a marked improvement over more recent "Idol" tours.

The production still went back and forth between group numbers and solos, and there were a few original songs, but with more time available per singer they got to tell more of their personal stories.

Beckham went first, and before he wowed with "Georgia on my Mind," he talked about church singing theatrics and pranks he played while performing at weddings and other gigs — he would insert commercial jingles into the background music to see who was paying attention to him. That would become a cute running gag throughout the night.

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Interestingly, all of the finalists, save for Fradiani, told stories of God, church and or their life's purpose. Jax talked about her love for her father, a 9/11 first responder, and how she grew to realize that her singing could help others just as much in its own way. Owen echoed those sentiments with a story of the first time he sang at church.

"I realized that singing can be my catalyst for helping people," he said. "When I perform, it's a representation of all my experiences, everything I've been through."

That might have been why Fradiani's storytelling seemed a bit off. Having been through more of the music industry than the others (he was on "America's Got Talent" and performed one song by his old band, Beach Avenue), his talk of being anxious that his "Idol" coronation song "could suck," and how his mother had to talk him out of no-showing at Hollywood week on the show, went against the others' narrative of excited gratitude.

Jax rocked out "My Generation" with a tambourine, running through the crowd a bit; Jones served us "Lips Are Movin' " and Beyoncé's "Sweet Dreams"; and Owen silenced the crowd by arranging his audition song, Katy Perry's "Wide Awake," with Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' 'Bout You." Owen, Jones and Beckham also performed a standout version of Sia's "Chandelier."

The night before, the first "Idol" winner, Kelly Clarkson, headlined at Staples Center — she also mentored for a week during the past season — and some of the finalists were in attendance at her concert. About halfway into her set, Clarkson stepped back from center stage and let an unknown Luke Edgemon blow the crowd away with daring runs in his "My Funny Valentine."

"I feel like I always meet so many talented people who just can't catch a break," Clarkson said to the crowd. "I'm very fortunate. I was on a show, and people voted.... And every artist is fortunate to be where they're at, 'cause there's a lot of people who can do what we do even better sometimes."

Despite its impending exit, "Idol" has given many great belters opportunities for exposure and has inspired numerous other talent show competitions.

Hopefully, the last go-around finds more interested and invested fans willing to tune in and hand out a few more breaks.

For more unrefined pop culture thoughts, follow me on Twitter: @theACWshow

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