‘American Idol’ Cuts Kady Malloy, Luke Menard, Asia’h Epperson, Danny Noriega

Down to 12 contestants, the show begins single-elimination rounds next week.

With a taste of the usual drawn-out agony of the final elimination rounds, Thursday night’s “American Idol” took an excruciating 27 minutes to start cutting heads.

First, we had to sit through a tame performance from last year’s runner-up, Blake Lewis, who brought his beatboxing and brohawk back for a run through his new-wave weeper “How Many Words.” Then there was a recap of the boys’ performances, and wannabe rocker David Cook, favorite David Archuleta and the dreadlocked Jason Castro were waved through to the shiny silver stools reserved for finalists.

Just when it looked like we would have to sit through another commercial break before getting a taste of blood, the first and most obvious choice for elimination got the bad news. After a shouty, “robotic” performance of Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” on Wednesday night , 18-year-old Texas blond bombshell Kady Malloy fell victim to what Simon Cowell deemed her “massive lack of personality.” The Britney Spears impersonator looked resigned to her fate as she stepped to center stage and said simply, “I don’t regret a moment,” her departure rubber-stamped by a final off-key warble through “Forever.”

One of the oldest contestants, 29-year-old crooner Luke Menard, was done in by what was perhaps one of the worst song choices in “Idol” semifinal history. On Tuesday , Randy Jackson called the carpet cleaner’s ham-handed take on Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” “kinda cheesy.” Simon said it was “weak” and “kind of girly,” guaranteeing Menard would not make it to the final 12. Paula Abdul promised the Indiana native that it was the first day of the rest of his career, but Menard’s last nasal skip through “Go-Go” seemed to guarantee one thing: a return to his a cappella group, Chapter 6.

The ’80s were also not kind to Asia’h Epperson, 19, the Joplin, Missouri, native who committed one of the cardinal “Idol” sins: taking on a tricky, iconic song by a legendary singer and not knocking it out of the park. Her performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on Wednesday wasn’t a total train wreck, and Randy &#8212 has he mentioned before that he worked on the original? &#8212 thought it was “hot.” Paula said she nailed it, but Simon called it “second-rate” Whitney at best. Like Malloy, Epperson seemed to sense it was her night to go, and both she and Paula were nearly in tears as she took a deep breath and sang her way off the screen. “This won’t be the last time you will see me,” she promised, smiling.

Last to go was this year’s Sanjaya-be, Danny Noriega, 18, whose spice, sass, purple streaks and bobbleheaded catchphrases couldn’t save him from a crash-and-burn performance of Soft Cell’s classic new-wave version of “Tainted Love.” Picking at his nails as Chikezie was waved over to the finalists’ area, Noriega barely hid his tears behind a bi-level haircut as the ax fell and his dreams of stardom faded. But not before he swung his hips and strutted the stage one more time for a defiant take on “Love.” Given the recent revelation of his Chris Crocker-esque, foul-mouthed Christmas greeting , something tells us it’s not the last we’ve seen of Noriega.

And so, with a new set and the first shot at singing the Lennon/McCartney songbook beginning next week, the final 12 move on to the single-elimination rounds. They are: Jason Castro, Amanda Overmyer, David Cook, Brooke White, David Hernandez, Carly Smithson, Michael Johns, Kristy Lee Cook, Chikezie, Ramiele Malubay, David Archuleta and Syesha Mercado. The finalists return on Tuesday for a two-hour showdown, followed by the elimination show Wednesday night.

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