After shows featuring dancing and skating, B-list stars risk embarrassment by singing with better qualified partners on the new series ''Celebrity Duets''

The ”Celebrity Duets” premiere: Hits and misses

The casting choices for Celebrity Duets are so brilliantly ragtag that I’m hoping this show will spawn a spin-off called Celebrity BFF, wherein the same stars have to become ”yearbook message”-close to their celebrity partner. The idea of the Celebrity Duets cast working together and socializing multiple times a week pleases me to no end.

Seeing celebrities and singers who aren’t always in the limelight was strangely exciting. I found myself yelling at the TV how I knew the performers (”Hey, you’re that guy from that show!”). Celebrity Duets also benefits from the fact that the stars are singing hits that everybody already sings along to whenever they come on in the department store.

Host Wayne Brady was engaging and quick. This is an easy paycheck for him. The judges — Marie Osmond, Little Richard (”Hey, I run to your greatest-hits album!”), and the token fake meanie, record producer David Foster — seem quite qualified, if a bit critically soft. I’m looking forward to see if their judgment gets a little more honest as the show continues.

Kicking off the two-hour premiere, Lucy Lawless had a little ”Time, Love and Tenderness” with Michael Bolton (”My mom vacuums to your greatest-hits album!”). Voice aside, that’s Lucy Lawless? I wasn’t expecting a full-on leather and bronze Xena outfit or anything, but the blond hair and New Zealand accent were quite a surprise.

Speaking of surprises, Alfonso Ribeiro (who should now forever be referred to as ”Destiny’s Manchild”) sounded better than Destiny’s Child vet Michelle Williams during their duet to ”I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” and he seemed to be having a good time too. He kept up beautifully with second partner James Ingram and danced like a maniac. To quote Little Richard, ”He’s got what it takes, and it takes what he’s got!” He may not become a pop star, but this show is the best personals ad the newly single Carlton could have ever placed.

Former Olympic gymnast Carly Patterson was equally enthusiastic, but she drowned under first partner Ingram’s incredible voice. Then Marie Osmond used the amateur teen’s nerves as a reason to talk about her own teen years, and David Foster added that backstage he had told Carly to imagine the audience naked, so things only got more awkward. Carly, while still a little stiff, sounded a lot better accompanied by Lee Ann Womack in her second performance. As for Womack, it must have been a relief not to be singing with wrestler Chris Jericho again. I loved the vocal coach’s cringe during Jericho’s rehearsal; what I loved less was Jericho’s slow, uncomfortable singing with Womack (who laughed at him afterward — ouch!) and his jumping and yelling alongside Peter Frampton. The judges’ praise for that second performance was ridiculous. Obviously, they wanted to pat him on the back while he was on his way out the door.

Peter Frampton’s first partner, Cheech Marin, was not so great, but not so bad that everyone would jet to the bathroom if he sang at a karaoke club. Frampton himself was just okay; the real star on the stage during their duet was the shirt he was wearing, which featured a huge bat lifting up a skull. And Cheech had crazy bling on; so their collective fashion statement automatically made their performance more interesting than the duet between Lea Thompson (”I love Back to the Future!”) and country singer Randy Travis. I have to disagree with my running buddy Little Richard’s statement that Lea’s country song was her better performance; her second duet, with Michael Bolton, was much stronger. (And Cheech’s duet with Travis was just as boring as Thompson’s; maybe country is just tough for the stars.)

Not sharing Peter Frampton’s cutting-edge fashion sense was Queer Eye‘s leather-vested Jai Rodriguez (”You went to my friend’s high school!”), who sang an excellent first duet with Gladys Knight and got the show’s first standing ovation. His second duet, Destiny’s Child’s ”Say My Name,” with Michelle Williams, made Marie and Little Richard make suggestive comments to the duo. I guess that’s a good thing, but technically, judges, that’s sexual harassment, and the contestants don’t have to take it. The judges have already deemed Jai one of the best singers in the competition, but that still leaves the Miss Congeniality award open.

While Hal Sparks couldn’t have hit Smokey Robinson’s high notes if Smokey himself had given him several kicks to the no-no spot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Hal is a bad singer. ”The Tracks of My Tears” was a tough first song, and ”Heard It Through the Grapevine” (sung with Gladys Knight) was a tough second song. Sparks wasn’t afraid to take vocal risks and make himself look silly, and it worked to his benefit. The audience loved him even when he was off-key. It seems he’s the show’s breakout personality, even if he’s not the breakout voice. (And even if Sparks didn’t get the high praise Little Richard bestowed on Smokey’s second partner, Lucy Lawless, who made the judge’s big toe shoot up in his boot.)

Overall, the judges were suspiciously kind. Perhaps it’s because these competitors are stars (and not Idol wannabes that they’re sending back to Kansas in tears), or maybe it’s just a symptom of first-episode jitters. I suppose we’ll find out when the Celebrity Duets returns on Thursday, Sept. 7.

While you’re deciding whether you want to watch the show again, tell us what you think. Was David Foster too disrespectful to Little Richard when he said he didn’t understand him? Did Jericho deserve to go? And which celeb do you think will be next to go?

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