On their first time performing for votes on the ''American Idol'' stage this season, the women impress -- and make us wish the finals could include more than six of them

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 22, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

”American Idol”: Now that’s more like it!

American Idol has a problem with women this season. Specifically, it’s got too many talented ones — and not nearly enough decent men — to fit the ludicrous predetermined condition that its 12 finalists be split evenly between the sexes.

Anyone who watched this week’s initial semifinal performances knows it’s true. Even the most generous critic wouldn’t have been able to find more than three legitimate Idol contenders after the 12 men took the stage during Tuesday’s deathly dull set. But tonight, the women sung what they brung! LaKisha Jones, Melinda Doolittle, Stephanie Edwards, Sabrina Sloan, and Jordin Sparks proved so exceptionally entertaining that not even Simon could wipe the grin of approval off his face. Heck, even midlevel female contestants like Gina Glocksen, Leslie Hunt, and Haley Scarnato managed to hit most of their notes — a lot more than you could say for the fourth-best dude on Tuesday, no?

As Randy implied at the end of tonight’s show, at this point it really seems like an eight-woman, four-man finals would be immeasurably more entertaining; instead the producers are painting themselves into an off-key corner. Is it too late to call an audible? Clearly, the situation is dire when I’m resorting to sports terminology this early in my TV Watch column!

But let’s quit the kvetch-fest and revel in the pure awesomeness of tonight’s show — starting with the mighty, the magnificent… LaKisha Jones! Now I’ll admit, I flinched a little when Ryan (who, in one week of semifinals, has exhausted all the goodwill he built up during five weeks of auditions) announced that LaKisha was tackling a number as iconic as ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” I mean, this is the song that won Jennifer Holliday the Tony. And is most likely going to win Jennifer Hudson the Oscar on Sunday night. So let’s be honest: As aw-shucks humble as LaKisha appears to be, her song choice was straight-up diva. And her delivery was exhilarating — complete with the ferocity of a hurricane laying waste to a tin shack, and the slightly scary touch of mania that transforms ”You! And you! And you! You’re gonna love me!” from simple plea to war cry of every woman scorned. I hope I’ll be forgiven the superlatives in light of the fact that even Simon himself declared, ”I’m very tempted to say to 23 people, ‘Book your plane ticket home.”’

Except, well, we’re only at chapter 1 of Nancy Drew and the Case of the Season 6 Idol. And by my count, there are a couple of suspects with designs on an altogether different ending, starting with the undeniably winning Melinda. I firmly believe you could screen out potential serial killers by playing this former backup singer’s pitch-perfect rendition of Aretha Franklin’s ”Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby),” then stepping back and seeing who’s not smiling. Mind you, ”Since You’ve Been Gone” has never been my favorite Aretha joint — not with the way it relentlessly builds to not-quite-a-climax — but watching Melinda, clad in a happening leather jacket and gold chandelier earrings, take that six-foot walk from the background mic to center stage was a minute and a half of pure joy.

And let’s not forget Stephanie or Sabrina. In my mind, there are few Idol tasks more difficult than building a legitimate fan base after not getting a smidge of screen time prior to the top-24 episode, but Stephanie cleared that hurdle maybe 30 seconds into her performance of ”How Come You Don’t Call Me.” To heck with the excuse-makers who want to give guys like Brandon, Paul, or Sanjaya a pass into next week just because they might have been nervous on Tuesday. Stephanie was first out on stage tonight, and watching her drop to her knees as she put a jazzy twist on Alicia Keys’ playful hit was downright revelatory. Plus, with her daring brown and aqua dress, Stephanie maintained her status as the season’s fiercest fashionista.

Sabrina, meanwhile, also made up for lost screen time with a strong impression tonight. Mind you, I found her pacing on ”I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” a wee bit peculiar, but she sang the track with such conviction — and strayed so far from Aretha’s legendary template — that I couldn’t help but be impressed. Better still, there’s an eagerness in Sabrina’s eyes that strangely reminds me of Lisa Rinna on season 2 of Dancing With the Stars. Yes, contestants, I want to know that you want (maybe even desperately want) to win. I mean, who likes an Idol who acts as if they’re too cool for the competition?

Likewise, no one’s ever going to accuse bubbly Jordin of being above it all, not with the way she giddily clings to the judges’ compliments the way my 4-year-old niece does her Care Bears. But dare I say it, while her rhythmic remix of Tracy Chapman’s ”Give Me One Reason” was only the fifth-best performance of ladies’ night, I enjoyed her more than any of the men on Tuesday. Now let’s see what the kid can do with a song that goes beyond a four-note vocal range.

If there’s any justice in the world — or not any massive improvement from the remaining seven women — then LaKisha, Melinda, Stephanie, Sabrina, and Jordin will sail into the finals. Which leaves an intriguing three-way battle for the sixth and final slot.

I’m pretty sure you can count out Amy Krebs, whose petrified performance of ”I Can’t Make You Love Me” resulted in Simon’s cruelest (and truest) barb of the evening: ”You have the personality of a candle.” And an unscented one at that.

Nor do I think we’ll have to endure more than another week of poor Antonella Barba’s vocal stylings. Seriously, halfway through her viciously off-key rendition of ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” I almost expected her to burst into tears, drop the mic, and flee the stage. (Which probably would’ve been a safer vote-getting strategy.)

That said, I don’t think Antonella was any worse than Nicole Tranquillo, whose rendition of ”Stay” was sung with such blunt force that I might have to visit the ER and have someone check for a concussion. Sure, Paula was right that the girl has the ability to hit a lot of notes, but the question is, should she? Especially since she hasn’t got the foggiest idea what to do with ’em? Someone needs to tell Nicole that loud is not a synonym for good. It also helps if you enunciate enough so that the audience can understand more than every fourth word out of your mouth. Scary!

Amy’s likely elimination, coupled with Antonella and Nicole’s meltdowns, is good news for Alaina Alexander, whose karaoke-bar take on the Pretenders’ ”Brass in Pocket” at least allowed her to draw attention to her arms, legs, fingers, and sidestep — the kind of assets that could attract enough teenage-boy votes to keep her around another week or two, tops.

Which, of course, leaves us with the aforementioned three-way battle for the role of sixth female finalist. For now, I’d give the edge to Gina Glocksen, whose came thisclose to skidding into the ditch as she went for the big note on Eric Carmen’s ”All by Myself” but somehow managed to save it. It was kind of like watching an Olympic figure skater wobble on the landing of a simple double jump, but then look so excited about her performance that you give her a standing-O anyway. That said, perhaps Gina ought to donate her tight leather bolero jacket to a local skating school, and seek out the help of a less sadistic style coach.

Of course, I could envision bland Haley Scarnato or gawky Leslie Hunt dashing Gina’s Idol-tour dreams. Simon was dead-on in his assessment that Haley’s take on ”It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (seriously?) sounded like a performance from a reasonably good hotel lounge; her black belted pantsuit, though, looked more like it had been snatched from an exhibition of Linda Gray’s Dallas wardrobe. Dog-walker Leslie, meanwhile, was decked out in kinky knee high-boots that clashed angrily with her demure brown dress; along with Gina’s jacket and a Frederick’s of Hollywood number, the boots would’ve completed a perfect dominatrix ensemble. Maybe the tension in Leslie’s wardrobe translated into her off-kilter facial expressions and (Simon’s words) ungainly body language, but I didn’t think her rendition of ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was half-bad. Here’s hoping Gina, Haley, and Leslie choose more appropriate material — and outfits — next week, and get Idol‘s producers thinking about doing away with the whole idea of a sex-balanced final 12.

What’s your initial impression of the season’s female semifinalists? Do you feel irked that six will go home in the next three weeks — even if they’re better than some of the men? And who is your diva front-runner and potential diva upsetter at this early point in the season?