The top three (mostly) dazzle in the performance finale, leaving us guessing who will -- and who should -- win

By Adam B. Vary
August 12, 2010 at 08:19 AM EDT
Frank Micelotta/Fox
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Well, ain’t this a pickle. I entered last night’s So You Think You Can Dance performance finale with the firm conviction that (A) Kent probably would win, (B) Lauren probably should win, and (C) Robert definitely was who I wanted to win. And while I can safely say I exited the evening with the firm conviction that it was likely the best the performance finale in the show’s history (more on that in a sec), like Nigel Lythgoe, I honestly have no flippin’ clue who will win, should win, or who I want to win. And I could not be happier.

Since I haven’t been your regular SYTYCD guide this season, and since you’re therefore likely unaware of my SYTYCD season-long predilections, lemme quickly ‘splain where I’m coming from. (First, though, major tip-of-the-wide-brimmed-Malevos-hat to the currently vacationing Kate Ward for her most excellent, and dance literate, SYTYCD recapping. Had Nigel & Co. gone with a top 4 finale as per the usual, she would’ve been able to see this whole thing through, and after wading through my blather, I think we’ll all be wishing the show had gone with tradition, AdéChické’s pensive proficiency be damned.) With Alex Freaking Wong out of the picture — and thanks to the recap montage that opened the show tonight, we all got a chance to grieve the untimely loss of AFW one last time, sniff — Kent has seemingly had an unbroken path to the season 7 crown. The Ohio farm boy’s tween voting base and Kewpie doll adorableness, along with his stellar dance skills, allowed him to embody the spirit of ”America’s Favorite Dancer” better than anyone this season, and I mean that entirely as a compliment. Lauren, meanwhile, has been by far season 7’s most consistent dancer, as Mia rightly pointed out last night. I don’t know if all of her routines have been home runs, per se, but she’s certainly never had a bum moment, and she’s only gotten better and more unreservedly watchable as the season’s progressed. Still, I’ve liked Robert more. He’s definitely had his share of wonky routines, but there’s a quality of deeply felt grace in his best moments that has touched me more deeply than anything Kent or Lauren has done. He can be vulnerable, strong, wacky, and contained, and he never let you see his work to get there. Plus, he is a damn handsome young man.

Hence, at 7:55 p.m. last night, I knew Kent would win, Lauren should win, and I was pulling for Robert to win.

Now? Shoosh, who knows? And as Nigel made great pains to drive home, who cares? As reliable as Cat’s windblown hair this season, So You Think You Can Dance‘s performance finales have historically been an exercise in creative and physical exhaustion for both the dancers and choreographers. But last night Cat’s hair did not look as if she’d spent the previous two hours racing along Mulholland Dr. in a convertible, and not even Tyce Diorio’s ”power surge of electric energy” could drag down an evening filled with some of my favorite numbers this year.

NEXT: Bring on the blasphemy

The show certainly started with a one-two punch of awesome. Kent may have run out of steam a wee bit towards the end of his Bollywood with All-Star Lauren, and the judges did go a bit overboard calling his dancing ”literally perfect.” But the kid sold the curry out of that routine, and halfway through I knew it was my favorite Bollywood number since Katee and Joshua introduced the genre t0 the SYTYCD stage back in season 4. Meanwhile, is it blasphemy to say that Lauren’s NapTab (no, not NappyTab, they’re NapTab, and that is that) hip-hop number with tWitch almost usurped the memory of Alex & tWitch’s ”Outta Your Mind” NapTab routine? So brawny, so clever, so fun! One question, though: Was Lauren supposed to embody Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin to tWitch’s hip-hop Obama? The blonde hair and boundlessly determined skill say the former, while the upswept do and chirpy aw shucks oratorical skills say the latter. (I guess Nigel’s dig at Palin tells us where he stands on the matter; doesn’t the man know he works for Fox?) As an added bonus, Lauren’s tight hip-hop skills elicited the best Mia comment of the night: ”She’s filthy!”

I wish I could say Robert started as strong, and it sure seemed like it’d be going that way as we entered the commercial break and Cat Deeley in her spangly Morticia-Addams-goes-clubbing frock announced that he’d be joined by All-Star Mark in a jazz number. ”YES!” I furiously jotted into my notes. ”Robert + Mark + Jazz = Sonya Tayeh!!!” Then we came back from the break, and this was the next line in my notes: ”ABV + Tyce + Anything = Sad Panda.” I gotta hand it to the guy, though; he managed to have two ridiculously gorgeous men dressed in studded satin-y suits jazz dancing to Devo’s ”Whip It” and it somehow did not come off as the gayest SYTYCD dance ever. (And, just to be clear, by all rights it should have.)

Fortunately, Robert was able to rebound with a fluid and dreamy Dee Caspary contemporary number with Lauren, which was unlike any other routine that night, in the best way possible — Robert brought that sense of subtle grace I mentioned earlier, and even better, he coaxed Lauren into one of her most emotionally effortless performances this season. It would probably be effortless for me to segue into Lauren and Kent’s subsequent Mandy Moore jazz number by noting that it was also unlike any other routine that night, in the worst way possible — but I actually don’t think it was all that bad, or at least nearly as bad as the judges clearly thought, even if they stubbornly refused to say so outright. Besides, if Nigel & Co. didn’t want an acrobatic-if-unchallenging routine drenched in ’80s nostalgia, they shouldn’t have asked Mandy Moore to choreograph for the finale. Bonus points to Kent for sticking up for his choreographer, by the way, which I will take right back for the ”woo hoo MTV Spring Break!” way he did it.

NEXT: Yay for therapy

It’s not like Kent isn’t capable of maturity, either. His Travis Wall sure-they’re-just-friends routine with All-Star Neil last week clearly demonstrated that widdle Kent can lose himself inside a story without transforming into a Mogwai, but even that didn’t quite prepare me for what he pulled off with Allison in last night’s Stacey Tookey routine. If I may contradict my namesake judge for a minute, I think it was this number that best demonstrated the impact of the All-Stars this season — with Alex, Robert, and now Kent, there’s something about the way Allison throws herself utterly into her characters, especially their anguish, that’s drawn out the absolute best from her respective partners. I do think Mr. Shankman was correct, though, when he (quite enthusiastically) declared that Kent had had an emotional breakthrough with this number — ”like in therapy!” — and all snark aside, it was truly remarkable to witness.

I just wish the judges had been as equally enthused with Robert and Katherine’s Broadway number. I mean, I’m not crazy, right? It was ridiculously cool, yes, what with Robert’s solo at the beginning and Katherine’s interrogatrix get up and all? I mean, it was so outrageously good, Robert even split his pants, and it barely registered until the end of the number. I guess the judges were all just distracted by the choice of choreographer Spencer Liff (can someone check his ID, by the way?) to use the iconic West Side Story song ”Cool” for his number. And I guess that makes sense, especially given Adam Shankman’s thoroughgoing familiarity with the original Jerome Robbins choreography. (As Nigel swiftly learned, you do not want to go toe-to-toe with Shankers when it comes to musical theater. He will cut you with his eyes.) Still, I could point out to the judges that another SYTYCD choreographer has made a veritable fetish out of building routines using popular songs from Broadway and movie musicals (like Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, The Color Purple, The Wiz, All that Jazz, Hair, Singin’ in the Rain, Chicago, Cabaret, Smokey Joe’s Café, Godspell, Kiss Me, Kate, The Lion King, Victor/Victoria, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray) while barely if ever referencing the original story behind said songs — and the judges to my recollection have in turn breathed nary a word of protest. But I digress. (It’s what I do best, really.)

This would be the paragraph in which I would talk about Lauren’s cha-cha; about the relish that flashed across Melaine LaBetteMidler’s face at the prospect of making the fresh-out-of-high-school 18-year-old rapidly thrust her hips and chest; about the completely insane set of lifts and drops; and about Mia Michaels paying Lauren the highest of compliments by telling her that, ”If I was still dancing, I would want to dance just like you.” But Pasha was involved, and shirtless. So my brain ceased to function. Moving on.

NEXT: The solos

Ah yes, the Malevos number. I understand the appeal of finding a ballroom style that would work for two men without causing Nigel to fall into same-sex ooglie-booglie conniptions. And I certainly appreciate the unbounded enthusiasm with which Robert and Kent poured themselves into their choreography. I even get why the judges used their time to pay the briefest of lip-service to the number itself and focus instead on Big Picture assessments of the three finalists as individuals and as a group. But really, this was a pretty silly routine, from the oddly large costumes that made Robert and Kent look like boys roughhousing in their dads’ suits, to the sight of two ostensibly combative men grabbing each other’s arms and spinning round each other like, well, two boys roughhousing in their dads’ suits. But at least it was marginally better than the Russian Trepak number from Season 4’s finale, which I recall had tWitch and Joshua mostly just jumping really high.

”So Adam, you’ve spent the better part of the wee hours writing up the SYTYCD finale — are you any closer to sticking your neck out and declaring a winner?” Yes, point of fact, I am, but let’s take a brief look at the individual solos first. After Cat’s crackerjack pressing-thumb-into-teeth interview technique got Kent to confess that his favorite routine was Travis’ ”Prom” number with Lauren — cue the first of umpteen replays of Kent’s climactic kiss with Lauren — the small town kid unleashed a heartfelt and very Kent-y solo that, thanks to his perpetually open shirt, mostly reminded me of how much weight he (and Robert) have lost over the season. Robert, meanwhile, won himself the last vestiges of the Mom vote that he hadn’t already sewn up after his Travis ”Fix You” routine (his favorite), by matter-of-factly stating that the first thing he’d do with the $250,000 grand prize is buy something for his mom. Awwwwww. His solo was physically more adventurous and inventive than Kent’s, although it seemed to be over before he’d really gotten started.

As for Lauren, she refused to get all dewy and sentimental under Cat’s withering cross-examination about the challenges of the show, although Cat did get her blushing about the Travis ”Prom” number (her favorite as well). But it was her solo that sealed the deal — leaping into a jump and then landing in the splits, popping up one leg into a [insert technical dance term that Kate Ward would easily know here] stance in perfect time to the music, it had the ”WOW!” factor that Kent and Robert’s solos were ultimately missing. Considering the fact that she had only one less-than-stellar routine — i.e. Mandy Moore’s ’80s jazz — while her competition each had two (Robert: Tyce & Malevos; Kent: Mandy & Malevos), and the judges unabashed adoration for her, and I’d say the scales tip ever so slightly in Lauren’s favor.

Which makes me perfectly happy. What would also make me happy: Robert winning. And: Kent winning. Who deserves to win? I still haven’t a clue; or, put another way, I could quite easily make a convincing argument for each of them. But I’ll leave it up to you, dear readers. Who should win? Who will win? What standout routines to you hope to see during tonight’s two hour finale? Who do you think will stand in for Alex Freaking Wong in the ”Outta Your Mind” number? (All together now: Danny Tidwell! Danny Tidwell!) And most importantly, do you think Mary Murphy will return to the SYTYCD stage, and if so, who will make the hot tamale train first?

Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and the viewers at home crown America’s Favorite Dancer.
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