The Denver auditions for ''American Idol'' produced a few likable candidates, but there wasn't a Kelly or a Ruben in the bunch

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”American Idol”: Contenders, but no champs

After three hours’ worth of tryout footage from Chicago and Denver, I’m prepared to go out on a limb: If any singer we’ve seen audition so far (and I’m not talking about the ones whose faces flashed across the screen during a Ryan Seacrest voice-over) turns out to be American Idol‘s season 5 champ, I’ll videotape myself eating a piece of fried tripe and drinking a lukewarm mug of Mrs. Butterworth, then post it on the day after the season finale.

Yeah, I know that’s a little Fear Factor of me, but as a card-carrying Idol addict, I’m confident that such a retch-inducing repast isn’t in the cards. Unless, of course, in five short seasons Fox’s reality sensation has exhausted its potential talent pool, and moderately gifted folks such as Ace Young, Lisa Tucker, Chris Daughtry, and April Walsh are the best undiscovered singers this country has to offer.

Folks, if that is true, a breakfast of bovine stomach lining and maple syrup will be the least of my woes.

Not that I’m hating on the aforementioned auditioners. Well, maybe Ace just a smidge. C’mon, any guy who’d sing a Westlife ballad with enough breathy boy-band affectations to make Nick Carter roll his eyes is asking for it, no? And as for that scary-precocious Tucker, yeah, she didn’t miss a note of Whitney Houston’s ”One Moment in Time,” but still, she boasted about being named one of ”Variety magazine’s top 10 kids to watch” the way most 16-year-olds talk about scoring a driver’s permit. In other words, she’s just this side of frightening.

Walsh and Daughtry, on the other hand, were better than ai’ight for me. I was won over by the former, in fact, the minute she strutted out in her floral-print dress, a jaunty red flower tucked into her auburn hair, and belted a competent rendition of Bjork’s ”It’s Oh So Quiet.” But is she the next Kelly Clarkson? That’d be a definite no. She’d be lucky to be the next Kimberly Locke, if you ask me.

Slightly more promising was Daughtry, the raspy-voiced 25-year-old who’s handsome in spite of the unfortunate topiary that doubles as his facial hair. Paula was right (!) when she said she heard talent but saw nerves during his too-forced rendition of ”The Letter,” but at least the guy didn’t settle for the karaoke-level mimicry fancied by most Idol wannabes. I’m still not certain why Simon wanted to put the kibosh on Daughtry’s Hollywood dreams, but after hearing his wife’s tearful anecdote about how the guy put his singing career on hold to marry her and help raise her two kids, I’m happy Paula and Randy gave him the thumbs up. (Ditto for smoky-voiced Rochelle Elaine Dye, whose limber ”Chain of Fools” hit me a lot harder than her tales of multiple evictions.)

Still, when it comes to heartstring-tugging territory, you cannot cannot cannot beat 18-year-old Garet Johnson, the kid from Veteran, Wyo. (population: 4). There I was, sitting on my couch, cynically wondering whether Johnson might be some ingenious schemer who’d fabricated a can’t-miss backstory, when out he came with a rendition of Elton John’s ”Can You Feel the Love Tonight” that was so heartfelt you’d have thought his life depended on it. And maybe it did. Here’s a young man who admitted to Paula that ”this is the first time I’ve been out in public” and yet at the same time confessed to harboring a lifelong dream of getting on a plane, of singing for an audience bigger than a handful of relatives and the massive white turkey out in his yard. (As an aside, I’m not the only one who found himself chuckling when Seacrest compared said bird to Simon — ”puffed-up chest and a wrinkled neck” — am I?)

I understand why Paula stood alone against Simon and Randy, arguing that Johnson needed more time and training before heading to Hollywood. And I know deep down he’s a long shot to follow in the footsteps of Ruben, and Carrie, and my beloved Fantasia. But then again, Johnson actually got me choked up. So who knows? If he can smooth out the rough patches in his vocals, upgrade his off-the-clothesline couture, and put a lump in the throat of every American who’s got an inner misfit, I might just have to eat my words — or, even worse, the most unappetizing meal of my life.

What do you think? Can any of tonight’s winners go the distance? Is the quality of the auditioners in general lower than usual? And should the show stop playing clearly troubled people for laughs?