‘American Idol’ Shocker: Lilly Scott, Alex Lambert, Katelyn Epperly, Todrick Hall Exit

Shaky singers Aaron Kelly and Paige Miles survive to make it to the season-nine top 12.

After months of auditions, nail-biting Hollywood drama and three sometimes-painful live-performance weeks, America finally got its top 12 on “American Idol” Thursday night (March 11) on a show that provided some of the first true surprises — and shocking exits — of season nine.

The handful of singers who appeared certain to end their runs on the show after crash-and-burn performances got miracle reprieves as Katelyn Epperly, Lilly Scott, Todrick Hall and Alex Lambert were voted off.

In the first elimination group, host Ryan Seacrest waved through potential singer/songwriter Didi Benami and quirky dark horse Siobhan Magnus. That left Katelyn Epperly and Paige Miles standing center stage, with one facing elimination.

It seemed certain that Miles, whom the judges have repeatedly said had the strongest voice in the competition, would be the one to go after her poorly received cover of “Smile,” a song made famous by Michael Jackson. But in a surprise, it was Epperly, who went home after an equally slammed cover of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.”

Miles looked shocked and not quite as elated as one would suspect, while the somewhat emotional Epperly began to well up when she said she’d learned a ton on the show and her elimination was “just a push for me to go do more stuff.” The second go-round for “Earth” was a bit more energetic and had the personality the judges had been missing, though the vocals were still not great.

Then it was the guys’ turn, as Tim Urban, Todrick Hall, Lee Dewyze and Casey James lined up on the stage. First to go through was sensitive pinup James, who played it safe with Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me,” followed by this year’s true wild card, Urban, who seemed destined to go home after two horrendous weeks but somehow pulled out a strong vocal on Wednesday night with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Not surprisingly, the much-praised Dewyze was safe, thanks to his serviceable cover of Owl City’s “Fireflies,” while dancer Hall was sent packing even after his big gamble with a gospel version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” that drew praise but didn’t seem to endear him to voters.

Hall seemed to sense his number was up, staring blank-faced into the camera with a resigned look. He said he was just happy that fans came up to him over the weekend and said they’d voted for him. “This has been an awesome experience,” he said. “I came here to prove that I’m not just a dancer, I can also sing. I think I’ve done that.” The reprise of the bombastic glam-rock tune indeed proved that Hall has a powerful voice and strong performance chops that will likely keep the former Broadway star — who performed with onetime “Idol” Fantasia in “The Color Purple” — gainfully employed.

Seacrest mixed it up as he built the second half of the top 12, starting out with leading female contender Crystal Bowersox, who looked more nervous than she should have been as she got the good news, followed by Michael Lynche, who was a shoo-in following his searing, tear-jerking cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”

During her second go-round on the show, Lacey Brown made it further than last year, when she washed out just before the live rounds. This year will be different, as she took a seat, along with jittery teen Aaron Kelly, who managed to make it to the top 12 despite a so-so performance of Lonestar’s “I’m Already There.”

That left Alex Lambert and Andrew Garcia standing with their arms around each other’s shoulders awaiting the news. It was another shocking exit, as Lambert, who was beginning to overcome his paralyzing case of stage fright, got the bad news.

The men gave each other several deep hugs, and Lambert lamented how nervous he was during his run. “There’s a lot of things America hasn’t seen me do yet,” he said. “And a lot of things I know I’m capable of. … I wish I could have just broken out of my shell.” Magnus was brought to tears, and Bowersox mouthed along as Lambert tried his best to keep his emotions in check during one more run through Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble,” earning a group hug from the male top six at song’s end.

The final pairing featured teen Katie Stevens and Lilly Scott awaiting their fate. Stevens, who was tagged as a potential winner of the whole thing early on, stumbled in the live rounds, unable to find a performance personality and repeatedly getting feedback from the judges that she came off as much older than 17 and needed to get more experience under her belt.

But, despite another poorly received performance on Tuesday, this time of Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” America gave her the nod over Scott, a unique performer who won the judges over with her offbeat style, musical chops and a solid cover of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.”

Scott looked dumbfounded at the news and genuinely bummed. “I thought I did really well, I thought I was appealing to a lot of people,” she said, shaking her head while Stevens wiped away tears of joy. “I put my heart into every performance. I really gave it my all every time. … I don’t know what America wants to hear.”

Without her mandolin, Scott sang another solid rendition of the 50-year-old country classic, singing it even more powerfully than she did earlier in the week, perhaps leaving the audience with a sense of an opportunity missed.

The show opened with one of the blandest group lip-synch numbers in recent memory, a vanilla waltz through Michael Bublé’s bubbly “Haven’t Met You Yet.” Later in the program, returning to the stage were a pair of finalists from last year, dueling piano players Matt Giraud and Scott MacIntyre , who played a boogie-woogie version of Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It.”

Next week, the top 12 contestants will be singing songs from iconic rock band the Rolling Stones.

What did you think of Thursday night’s eliminations? Did the right people go home? Did America make a mistake? Leave your comments below!

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