One hour audition episodes of American Idol are sometimes harder to sit through than the two hour variety, if the producers choose to spend too much time highlighting obvious bad actors and no-hopers instead of young singers who might have a chance of still being around in March. Our show redeemed itself slightly during Wednesday's audition in Orlando, which featured a good ratio of talent to (alleged) comedy; but Tuesday's hour out of Chicago was deadly dull, among the worst nights of Idol ever.
It should be said up front that the guest judge in Chicago, Shania Twain, should be absolved of blame for the fiasco. On the contrary, she was fully engaged and made positive comments that had more content to them than "You're the bomb!" Too bad that she had so little to praise. Chicago sent only thirteen people to Hollywood, we saw only eight sing, just five of those eight had a package built around them, and (in my opinion) zero of those five have a chance of winning in May. But the producers did see fit to present us with an obvious prankster who acted like Gomer Pyle and sang "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," and a bubbly Broadway fan whose singing was only fair but whose bouncing breast trick is worthy of something, if not a golden ticket.
My favorite auditioner out of Chicago was Iowa teenager Katelyn Epperly, who naturally had a "story" (recently split up parents) like almost everyone else who has been seen singing for more than ten seconds this season. Kara DioGuardi didn't think she was perky enough, which is what they say to any blonde girl who is more sedate than Kellie Pickler, but she managed to put across blue eyed soul without the affectations, which is rare these days. The judges seemed more excited about Charity Vance, a sixteen-year-old from Little Rock who sings at the beauty salon her parents run. She has a high and thin voice, and seems more like the sort of promising but inexperienced performer who needs to be told to come back in a few years. But she's likable and very pretty, and then there's the Arkansas angle, which has worked well in the recent past. If Charity makes the final 24, she will be going a long way.
The other featured singers and their "stories" were Page Dechausse (nearly died in asthma attack), Angela Martin (keeps getting to Hollywood but no further, and this is her last chance at age 28), and John Park (no real obstacle here except he's a man, and Idol clearly isn't focusing on men this season). The one to remember here is probably Park, who will inevitably get compared to Anoop Desai because he's Asian, sort of prep, and favors soul. Shania complimented his "bottom end," referring to his lower register, and his overall tone will help him stand out in this field. He also looks strangely like an Osmond, and that can't hurt either. We also got a brief look at Justin Ray, who is mostly of interest because he looks like a 20-year-old version of Proposition Joe from The Wire (Stringer Bell refused to audition).
Orlando was much more fruitful than Chicago: 31 singers made it through to Hollywood, and the good/bad ratio on our TV screens was much more to my liking. Only two rejects got any real airtime, and one of them was a stoner who looked like a redneck Peter Stormare and ended his trip to the judges by getting arrested -- very much worth the detour. Guest judge Kristin Chenoweth was her usual bubbly self, though she is looking downright emaciated these days. Cheno spent the first day of auditions doing little but mugging along with Kara, and then disappeared for the second day, hopefully because she couldn't tear herself away from the Waffle House.
This was the first episode of the season where the focus was on talented men, and none shone brighter than Jermaine Purifoy. He gave a very sweet performance of "Smile," which impressed standards-loving Chenoweth, and Simon Cowell was positive that the ladies will love him. Jermaine said he had auditioned on a lark two seasons before, and it sure sounds like he put the extra time to good use. Seth Rollins is dealing with a son with autism, a struggle which will resonate with an unfortunate number of people. But he's 28 and not a looker, and though he was passed through to Hollywood, it was a borderline call and I suspect he won't get any further.
The Orlando hour featured several who are going to Hollywood less because they are true contenders than for their capacity to provide drama or other forms of entertainment out west. New Jersey sisters Amanda and Bernadette Desimone were very marginal (the latter not even that), but even though this audition was held before Italians from Jersey became a national craze, the producers know characters when they see them. Jay Stone tried to channel Blake Lewis (an awfully shallow channel) by beatboxing, but while it was technically interesting, there's no way his singing voice is really competitive. Cornelius Edwards was given a Hollywood trip even though he barely sang (and misidentified the title of "Proud Mary" to boot), because he managed to split his pants and everyone thought it was hilarious. Whatever.
A trio of females got the thumbs up, but even though we barely got to hear any of their songs, all three sounded terrific in their little snippets. Since I don't want to ignore a potential Kris Allen situation like I did last season, I will mention the ladies here: Brittany Starr James, Kasi Bedford, and (the best of the bunch?) Janell Wheeler. The woman who got the most Orlando airtime was Shelby Dressel, who has had to deal with partial paralysis on the left side of her face. As this affects her speaking voice slightly, you would think the condition would make singing difficult, but she has a quirky tone and phrasing that I'd like to hear more of. Also, she forgot the words to her song and cursed, which the judges found more charming than they typically do.
The prized Danny Gokey Memorial anchor spot from Orlando was awarded to Matthew Lawrence, whose human interest hook is that he robbed a bank with a BB gun when he was fifteen, spent four years locked up, and now wants to make amends to his parents for putting them through hell. Lawrence's version of "Trouble," if perhaps a bit overpraised by the judges, was delivered with gravelly vigor and he deserved his pass to Hollywood. But while I'm all about redemption, especially for misdeeds committed in youth ... we're talking bank robbery here, people. We all know of contestants who have been bounced from Idol for a lot less, but Lawrence is not only being allowed to compete, he's being promoted as a sympathetic figure. This is an opportunity that I strongly doubt would be extended to anyone outside of Lawrence's good old boy demographic.
Next week, auditions in Dallas and Los Angeles; and something Idol has been needing for years: Neil Patrick Harris!