A selection of Beatles classics made it harder to pick out the front-runners and also-rans among the 12 finalists
American Idol, American Idol

”American Idol” recap: Beatlemania!

Chalk up another ”wow” moment for David Archuleta.

Unfortunately for the human equivalent of a fresh-hatched baby chick, his performance tonight of the Stevie Wonder version of the Beatles’ ”We Can Work It Out” provided a very different kind of ”wow” than what most American Idol fans were expecting. After all, the last time Little David got anywhere near a John Lennon-penned number, back in week 2 of the semifinals, to be precise, he delivered a rendition of ”Imagine” so pure and heartfelt that Paula threatened to squeeze off his head and attach it to her rearview mirror, and a lot of Idol prognosticators and fans wondered if the winner of season 7 was, for all intents and purposes, a foregone conclusion.

So imagine the shock tonight as Little David took the stage for Lennon-McCartney night in the end-of-show pimp spot and promptly missed the song’s opening note. (Strike one!) And then botched the second line of the first verse. (Strike two!) And then, a few seconds later, blanked on a few more words. (Strike three!) But wait, we’ve got one more fumbled line. (Uh, strike four?) And a wrecked attempt at falsetto! As Simon so succinctly put it, the performance was ”a mess.”

The whole experience was, to me, kind of like watching Kristi Yamaguchi fall on a simple spin, then struggle to get up. Or seeing Secretariat get a case of the staggers at the top of the Belmont Park stretch. Or witnessing Martha Stewart forgetting the correct placement of a dessert fork while setting her Thanksgiving table.

Okay, so the comparisons are a little unfair. Martha Stewart has had her entire adult life to master the art of magnificent homemaking (and make the rest of the planet feel slightly inferior by comparison). David Archuleta is a 17-year-old boy from Murray, Utah, who tonight, for the first time in his life, performed on Idol‘s big (and revamped) stage. That’d be a tall order for any singer, let alone one who’s carrying the added burden of great expectations and heavyweight hype on his back.

So now, inevitably, the question is going to shift from ”Does Little David have it in the bag?” to ”Is Little David at the start of a downward spiral?” (with perhaps a deeply cynical ”Could Team Archuleta have planned this debacle to avoid a peaked-too-early scenario?” thrown in for good measure). I’ll offer this thought: The kitten appeared to humbly land on his feet during his post-performance interview. And those very nice gentlemen and the seal-clapping lady at the judges’ table are gonna give him a chance to climb back up the tree, and see if he can handle the view when (or if) he gets to that lofty branch again. (Maybe he and his fellow contestants should read my Idol-advice gallery — complete with musical request lists — before proceeding any further.)

In the meantime, even if Little David had worked it out in front of 30 million viewers, several of his competitors performed so well that all on their own they’d have obliterated the idea that season 7 is a one-contestant race.

Needless to say, I was not expecting that Chikezie (not Eze) would wind up fitting that description, especially after his pre-performance interview found him discussing last week’s results show and dropping the following bomb on the audience: ”I was ready to go home.”

But maybe the feeling that he had nothing left to lose in the competition freed Chikezie from the slightly lounge-lizard constraints that have kept him at the back of the pack for the last three weeks, because his rendition of ”She’s a Woman” tonight was a revelation. Chikezie started with (as Paula coherently noted!) an O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe, and ended with me spontaneously bursting into applause at my TV screen and asking, ”O brother, who art thou?” Dude is gonna have trouble if he goes back to visit his former coworkers at LAX airport security, because with his gray, green, and white argyle sweater vest, that unexpected opening jolt of fiddle, banjo and tambourine, and his till-now-unheard falsetto, Chikezie was a dangerous weapon on the Idol stage tonight. Heck, when Ryan Seacrest spontaneously wipes your sweaty brow with his bare hand, you know you have done something special.

NEXT: Women move up

Of course one week of fabulousness doesn’t make Chikezie a front-runner, and one brutal misstep doesn’t make Little David a goner, but the beauty of Idol‘s leap from semifinals to finals (with a much larger stage and audience) is watching the inevitable shifts in momentum that come with it. And while the season 7 buzz has centered largely around the male contestants, Brooke White and Carly Smithson continued their not-so-quiet marches toward the front of the pack tonight.

All season long, I’ve resisted Brooke’s earth-mother charms and doubted whether she has an instrument that’s strong enough to keep me entertained for the next dozen weeks, but tonight, her rendition of ”Let It Be” made me a believer. I was riveted from the moment she plinked her first key on the piano, right through every grainy, perfectly imperfect note that came out of her mouth. Not even the massively annoying pack of producer-planted people waving in unison at the front of the stage could distract me. I’m not sure what Randy was thinking when he told Brooke it wasn’t her strongest performance, because it was! — and because I am not even remotely bashful about declaring right here on the pages of EW.com that the minute I finish writing my column, I am preordering Brooke’s performance on the online music store whose name Ryan Seacrest really enjoys saying a little too often. (And for what it’s worth, my husband wants it put on his iPod, too, although I don’t think he actually gave me permission to say that. Oh, well, too bad!)

Heck, I might even set myself back two whole dollars and download Carly’s holler-ific rendition of ”Come Together,” which I found almost as delightful as Brooke’s number, albeit in a completely different way. Aside from Chikezie (and maybe Ryan), I don’t think anyone else on stage enjoyed themselves as much as Carly. Stalking the stage in her slinky blue minidress (and matching blue eyeliner), Carly infused her performance with a sex appeal that was missing from tonight’s other performances, and how could you not love that big, delighted grin she gave at the end of the opening verse? Paula was right (again!?) that Carly’s already a star — she just needed the proper forum for letting the rest of us know it. Her voice is so potent and controlled, in fact, that I think her heavily tattooed husband can stop hiding under his chair when the cameras go in for the close-up.

The advance of Brooke and Carly, in my opinion, puts them right alongside the two leading non-Archuleta men in the competition, both of whom held their ground this week without making significant moves forward. I understood, in a way, what Simon meant when he declared Jason Castro’s ”If I Fell” was a little like a ”student in a bedroom at midnight,” but the thing is, more than anyone else this season, Jason already knows what kind of an artist he wants to be, and I’m guessing he’s going to stay true to that vision no matter what kind of theme night comes his way. The little falsetto he broke out on ”couldn’t stand the pain,” the goofy grin he couldn’t hide on the final note, the way he pointed to Paula to understand the way she felt his heart — the guy’s a star, just not in the way we’re used to seeing or hearing in a prefab pop scene where Ashlee Simpson is considered a ”singer.” But, yeah, he needs to work on holding on to his big notes — especially on nights when he immediately precedes Carly.

If Jason didn’t get sufficient props from the judges tonight, though, maybe it’s because they unleashed a surplus of praise on David Cook. The resident rocker dude declared that B-plus performances won’t cut it at this point in the competition, but I’d actually leave off the ”plus” for his rendition of ”Eleanor Rigby,” which suffered from intermittent pitch problems for the first two-thirds; Rocker David needs to work on sustaining his breath when he’s trying to hold a note and not howling full throttle. What disappointed me more, though, was that — in contrast with last week’s heartfelt ”Hello” — Rocker David seemed oddly disconnected from the message behind the evening’s very best song.

The other self-identified rocker contestant was similar to David, except her pitch problems were a little more troublesome, and her hair was about 7 percent scarier. But then again, on some level, Amanda Overmyer transcends performance critique. There will be some theme night a week or two or three from now where Amanda’s down-in-the-swamp growl will fail her, where the emperor will rise up wearing hideous Hot Topic clothes, but for now, I am still on the back of Amanda’s hog (wearing my helmet), clinging for dear life, enjoying the thrill and the speed and the intensity of the ride. Tell me that her take on ”You Can’t Do That” didn’t leave you grinning, and that you didn’t believe she would leap off that stage, interrupt her performance, and throttle her man if she so much as saw him look in the wrong direction. For that reason alone, Amanda deserves to make the Idol tour ahead of bland karaoke-bots like Ramiele and Kristy Lee.

NEXT: Who’s bottom-three bound?

So where does that leave us? Assuming that Little David, Rocker David, and Jason brought the biggest fan bases into the top 12, and that Chikezie stood out as inarguably Most Improved — and I’d go so far as to say the best male performance of the evening — that could leave Michael Johns or David Hernandez as a surprise entry in the bottom three this week. No, neither of ’em deserves to go home — that dubious distinction goes to the gal whose name rhymes with Misty Sea — but judging from standard Idol voting patterns, I’d expect one guy to have a little perspiration on his brow during Wednesday’s results show.

No, I am not making a crack about Michael’s overactive sweat glands. Okay, I am. But other than ragging on his shiny forehead, the worst you can say about Michael’s ”Across the Universe” is that if he were the frontman for your wedding band, or playing your local pub on a night you wanted to hear some live music, you’d feel like you got your money’s worth. But just as I’m not going to enter Top Chef on the merits of the very delicious peanut-butter-on-toast breakfast I made myself this morning, neither is Michael going to crack the top half of the pack by offering the type of musical cuisine you can get in any major (or midsize) city in the country.

David H., at least in my opinion, has more to offer than Michael (from a vocal standpoint, I should clarify); unfortunately, his ”I Saw Her Standing There” delivered none of the vocal power or inherent energy of his ”Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” or ”It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” and there was a complete disconnect between David’s lounge-tastic delivery and the pop-rock nature of the Beatles number at hand. Even worse, David was so detached from the lyrics he might as well have learned how to say them phonetically in Swedish and delivered ’em that way. It’s better than coming off ”corny verging on desperate,” as Simon accurately put it.

Lucky for David, he’s less likely to get booted than Syesha Mercado, Ramiele Malubay, or Kristy Lee Cook. And while it’s very clear which one of them gave the worst performance this evening (hint: twisty tree), does it really matter which one of them pays the price on Wednesday night? Okay, it does a little. Syesha’s ”Got to Get You Into My Life” was at least passable but also pitchy and, perhaps most dangerous of all, entirely forgettable. Don’t be surprised if she’s the first one voted off Idol Island. Ramiele’s ”In My Life” was so inert I actually found myself hypnotized by the synchronized hand waving from the soulless folks at the front of the stage, and then by her very intense dewy-rose lip gloss. But guess what? She’s better than that, the judges say! Aw, and she crinkles her nose real cute when she’s getting criticized. Ramiele is sad, people! Can you please give her a sympathy vote? I know some of you gave her two, so don’t even try to pretend.

Which leaves us at the bottom of our pecking order with Kristy Lee. (Anyone else remember the song ”Christie Lee,” from Billy Joel’s 1983 album An Innocent Man? Yeah, I’m trying to delay thinking about the very terrible things K.L. did to ”Eight Days a Week.” Was it that obvious?)

Okay, let’s get to it: Kristy Lee’s country-fication of a classic Beatles tune reminded me of the out-of-control merry-go-round at the end of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It kept going faster and faster and faster, and I saw brief images of a trail horse, or a carousel pony, and people were screaming, children I think, and — for the love of God, somebody make it stop!

Alas, it did not. And the only way Kristy Lee’s valiant but tragically misguided performance would have made sense would have been if a square-dance caller had emerged from stage left and do-si-do’d Ms. Cook right off the stage. But instead, we found Paula Abdul — yes, the queen of breaking it to ’em gently — beginning her critique by saying, ”I didn’t like it, and I’ll tell you why.” And if that’s not enough to get Kristy Lee ousted from the competition, then Syesha or David H. or Ramiele has every right to commit an FCC violation during Wednesday night’s results show.

So what did you think of the first night of the Idol finals? Were you as impressed with the top-rung performances as I was? And were you as underwhelmed by the new set and graphics as me? Did you pick up the phone and vote for anyone? And who will (and should) go home this week?

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American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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