Laughs abound as the audition rounds wrap up in Puerto Rico and NYC, but where the heck are the producers hiding the Elliotts, Clays, and 'Tasias?

By Michael Slezak
January 30, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST
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True confessions time: I turn into a little bit of a crazy person whenever I’m in the passenger seat of a car. I liberally press the imaginary brake. Heading into sharp curves, I shout nonsense like ”beware the yellow arrows of danger!” And don’t even get me started on what happens when the gas gauge starts creeping into the danger zone.

So I guess it’s really no surprise that I’m consumed by feelings of panic as American Idol heads into Hollywood Week: Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Ken Warwick and Company have got control of the wheel, and after seven audition episodes, I’m clutching the passenger-side door handle and wondering if, eight seasons in, this nation’s tank of crazy-talented, undiscovered(ish) vocalists is down to fumes. And it sure didn’t help that tonight’s episode was akin to pulling up to the Exxon station and stocking up on Doritos Collisions, Caramel Creams, and Diet Dr. Peppers but failing to pump the gasoline.

Seriously, the judges handed out 26 Golden Tickets in New York City, and an additional nine in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and yet two of the strongest impressions tonight were made by merry pranksters — one of whom inexplicably got a free trip to Hollywood because Randy Freakin’ Jackson and Kara ”Take Me Seriously!” DioGuardi found him entertaining. To get back to my long-winded car metaphor, that’s not just forgetting the Premium Unleaded, it’s dumping cola in the tank.

But, wait…let me hold back on the bitchery for a second, and detour to discussing the one singer highlighted tonight who I’m certain I’d like to hear more from — drumroll, please — Jackie Tohn! Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find her entrance to the judging room ever so slightly off-putting. Maybe it was the ”what up with the what ups?” salutation. Or the way her purple and white leotard top looked like it might’ve been pilfered from the set of Madonna’s ”Hung Up” video. Or the fact that she appeared to have something metallic (a gold butterfly, maybe?) and moderately distracting suspended between her contestant number and her belt buckle.

But really, the minute Jackie started singing Jason Mraz’s ”I’m Yours,” I didn’t care about any of that superfluous stuff. Not only did she prove to have a husky, muscular instrument, but Jackie transformed that depressing little patch of gray linoleum where the contestants are forced to stand into an honest to goodness concert stage. She danced with abandon. She made eye contact. She essentially performed as if Simon, Paula, Randy, Kara, and the entire Idol crew had shelled out their hard-earned cash to buy a ticket to a Jackie Tohn show. And heck, since Simon halted her first song, we got treated to an encore — what I think was an original ballad, since a Google search of the lyrics yielded no results — that proved Jackie’s got the chops to grapple with whatever kinds of hokey theme nights she might face as the season continues. The woman is like Amanda Overmyer — with the ability to hit her notes! No wonder the set started crashing down onto the judges table — even inanimate objects wanted to get in on the fun. To quote Good Paula* in her critique of Jackie: ”You’re unpredictable and surprising, and it’s all good for me.” And bonus points to Ms. Tohn for traveling with a guitar, not a tragic backstory.

(* Programming note: Bad Paula reportedly vacationed in the South Pacific during the audition rounds this season, leaving Good Paula to do most of the heavy lifting. The dueling personas are still negotiating who’ll sit in during upcoming live performance episodes. Stay tuned!)

NEXT PAGE: The women have it

(Another note: While both Simon and Kara went on the record in their post-New Year interview tours that season 8 looked like a strong one for male contestants, I’ve got to say that based on what we’ve seen from the audition rounds, the exact opposite appears to be true. Sitting here in the wee small hours of the morning, I can distinctly remember the voices of Deanna Brown, Lil Rounds, Leneshe Young, Megan Corkrey, Jessica Furney, and Jackie Tohn. On the men’s side, all that’s coming to mind is Alex Wagner-Trugman and Von ”Shouty McShouterson” Smith. I’m sure I’m forgetting a couple folks from each gender but — oh blurg! — in proving my theory about the strength of this season’s female contestants, I just realized the Idol tank is at least a third full. There go the first 600 words of my column! Ah well, too late to turn this Mazda around!)

Anyhoo, I digress. And since tonight brought us what I believe will be our final trainwreck auditions until January 2010, let’s talk about the one that actually succeeded in making me chuckle, and one that was sorta funny until it wasn’t.

First, there was street performer Joel Contreras in San Juan, whose interview package found him singing aggressively to/at an ice-cream man, flying through pickup truck cabs and into walls, and even stalking pedestrians while dressed as a rat. Cut to the guy dressed as a human iPod, clicking his own wheel (cue my first laugh of the segment!) and spitting out eleven words of Mr. Big’s ”To Be With You” before getting cut off by Simon. His second number resulted in a poetically vitriolic tirade from Simon — ”I can’t listen to this. I really, really can’t. It’s just awful. It’s everything I hate. I hate everything. I mean, the whole act is excruciatingly bad. Honestly, it’s just terrible.” — and my second bout of the giggles. Laugh numero trés? Simon’s response to Joel popping a puppet out of his pocket: ”What relevance is you standing there with a lion on your hand to a singing competition?” And I cracked up for a fourth time (a record for season 8’s failed auditions) when Joel busted out with a hyper-earnest ”Circle of Life” with his mini lion king held out in front of him.

Not as amusing to me was the performance of Nick ”Norman Gentle” Mitchell, who bopped in like Richard Simmons with longer, less colorful shorts and a very shiny shirt, and straddled the not-at-all-thin line between serious audition and gruesome gimmick. Really, Norman should’ve been sent packing after the first 10 seconds of his ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” made Bikini Girl sound like Jennifer Hudson, but instead we got treated to a stale zinger about the Simon-Ryan love connection, and a decent rendition of ”Amazing Grace” that Norman couldn’t help but sully at the end with another attempt at camp humor. Maddeningly, despite Simon’s explanation that Idol isn’t ”looking for some ghastly cabaret comedy singer,” Kara, Paula, and Randy gave him a Golden Ticket. I especially enjoyed Kara’s open admission that the dude didn’t ”have a shot in hell” right before casting her ”yes” vote. Remind me again why they didn’t just fill that fourth seat with a tiny monkey dressed in a red vest and cap and clanging a pair of cymbals?

NEXT PAGE: (Gasp!) Paula says, No!!

Just as galling as Norman’s undeserved trip to Hollywood was the fact that his package cut into screen time for far better singers. The way the producers teased us with just a few bars from clearly talented Hollywood-bound singers like Kenny Hoffpauer, Ashley Hollister, and Kendall Beard made me feel like I’d purchased a pair of jeans online, but only received a zipper, a pocket, and a cuff in the mail. And bonus outrage points for showing Randy tell that cute black girl in the orange jumpsuit ”I think it’s of the best voices I heard today,” and then not allowing us to hear even a five-second snippet of said voice.

Oh, but there was time to keep afloat the not-quite-seaworthy singing aspirations of 16-year-old Monique Garcia Torres, who nailed neither ”You Can’t Hurry Love” or ”I Turn to You,” but brought her precocious brother and a broken seashell into the room. And in the new Idol logic, anyone who brings a child into the room goes to Hollywood. Good thing nobody from Jon & Kate Plus Eight decided to try out or the judges would have to unleash the ceiling confetti and sign ’em to a four-record deal on the spot!

And the three other successful auditions shown tonight all felt like pawns for the giant chess board of Hollywood Week. I don’t remember anything about Melinda Camille’s vocal on ”Feeling Good,” mainly because in her wisp of a pink dress, she was no more than two centimeters shy of a catastrophic nip slip and a massive FCC fine for Fox. I’ve got no problem with Melinda’s penchant for dancing naked in her room, but perhaps she could put on a pair of shoes the next time she takes a stroll into a strange, heavily trafficked, Manhattan-area building. I know, I know…I’m not being barefoot positive, but New York is a scary, scary place for the unsheathed foot!

Jorge Nuñez and Patricia Lewis Roman, meanwhile, kinda drove home the message of Simon’s pre-season interviews that the judges’ trip to Puerto Rico was a bust. Jorge certainly seemed likeable and handsome enough to win the hearts and minds of this speed-dialing nation, but his Spanish-language take on ”My Way” was (to bring back a favored season 7 term) T.M.T.H. I mean, dude brought out the sledgehammer of bombast when all he needed was a spatula.

Oh, and in the most shocking rose ceremony ever — wait! wrong show! but still shocking! — Good Paula voted ”no” after Randy had said ”yes” to the evening’s final hopeful, Patricia Lewis Roman, who sang one of Idol‘s most cursed numbers, Whitney Houston’s ”I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”…also known as the song that derailed season 7’s Asia’h Epperson. I’ve got a strong suspicion we won’t hear much from Patricia by the time March rolls around — she’s got a nice voice, but not a particularly memorable one — but she goes down in history as the woman who got Paula to play the role of negative contrarian, and in certain circles, that’s a pretty exciting consolation prize.

And with that final Golden Ticket of season 8, people…WE’RE GOIN’ TO HOLLYWOOD!!! (Yep, I’m not even going to mention Alexis Cohen, except to admit that I did laugh a little when she told Simon, ”I don’t know what else to do but give you the finger.”) But back to the business at hand: How are you feeling about Hollywood Week? Is there any way this season’s talent level will match up with the very potent season 7? And here’s a tough one — don’t think, just answer from your gut — if you had to name two singers you want in the top 36, who would they be? (I vote Deanna Brown and Leneshe Young.) Finally, did anyone else wonder how the NASDAQ reacted to Ryan ringing the opening bell?

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