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'American Idol' recap: Did the top 11 make you feel the love?

March 31, 2011 |  9:51 am

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It was the top 11 all over again on Wednesday night's "American Idol," as America's top 10 picks plus the snatched-from-the-brink Casey Abrams tackled the songs of Elton John. In a metaphorical tip of the feathered hat to the flamboyant singer, whose wild outfits are nearly as famous as his countless hits, the finalists also primped and preened for an "Entertainment Weekly" photo shoot.

It was an evening as much about image as it was about song, which seemed a fitting coda to the whole Casey elimination saga, since you could make a case that his shlumpfy sartorial style (and increasingly bushy hair and beard) had cost him at least a few key votes.

So what did Casey and the other contestants have in store for "Idol" watchers on Wednesday night? Would we feel the love tonight? Or would they go breaking our hearts? And which two contestants do we predict will be saying goodbye to the yellow brick road on Thursday night?

Read on …

Scotty McCreery, "Country Comfort": Not surprisingly, Scotty tackled what he told us was Elton's "one and only country song," sending a special shout-out to his grandma, who was cheering him on in the audience and hitting one of his trademark final low notes. The perfectly capable, if not surprising, performance, prompted Steven Tyler to issue one of his special head scratchers: "Nothing I could say to you that an old-fashioned pair of high-heeled cowboy boots wouldn't fix," he said, adding, "You did it again for me, Scotty." Jennifer congratulated Scotty for sticking to his instincts about song choice and performance, instructing him, "Never doubt yourself." Randy said something Tyler-ishly confusing about "Scotty's bar and grill" and noted that Scotty was looking very seasoned up there. "You are so in the zone right now," he told Scotty. "That song sounds like it could be on your record, dude. Very nicely done."

Naima Adedapo, "I'm Still Standing": Naima chose to do a reggae version of an Elton song she saw as an anthem to herself, noting that a lot of people hadn't imagined she'd still be in the running at this point. (Musical mentor Jimmy Iovine encouraged her to maybe broaden that out and dedicate the song to all the other people in the world who were having a tough time but are "still standing" -- good advice that Naima took.) Naima (who appears to have maybe had some dental work done?) again showed that she can move well onstage, and her voice sounded stronger than it sometimes had in the past. But I found it pretty uncomfortable to listen to her suddenly sing in a put-on reggae-inflected island accent when, in fact, she doesn't speak (or normally sing) with one at all. It made the whole performance seem altogether inauthentic. Randy obviously thought so, too, calling it "kind of corny … and that's not who you are."  Jennifer said it was a "better idea than it was payoff for me." And Steven, who -- now that Jennifer has taken to offering slices of genuine criticism sandwiched between thick-cut slabs of flattery -- has picked up the flag of empty encouragement and begun to wield it with almost militant fervor, said, "Boom chaka-lacka-lacka, baby. Good for you for picking a song that fit you."

Paul McDonald, "Rocket Man": I'm going to call this one of the most disappointing performances of the night -- and not just because Paul wore that same rose-emblazoned Nudie-inspired suit of his. Before he went out there, Iovine, who had advised Paul to amp up the energy and intensity in weeks past, told him to get out on that stage and rock it like it was an encore in front of 20,000 fans. He started gently, allowing us again to admire his distinctively appealing vocal rasp and then raised our hopes of a crescendo or a sudden burst by asking, "Ya'all ready?" And then took the song … down to a whisper, leaving me thinking -- for perhaps the first time -- that Paul, clearly a chill dude, just doesn't have a lick of intensity in him. The judges were measured in their responses. Randy said it was "quiet comfort," if a bit pitchy in spots, and said, "When you get into that tender zone, that quiet ... soft voice, it's very infectious" but expressed a desire to hear more vocal power. Jennifer said she felt he might have been "holding back." And Steven -- after making a crack about Paul's suit -- compared Paul to "five great artists" who sometimes didn't hit all the notes, which he said was a good thing but which doesn't sound all that good to me. Oh, and Randy and Steven quibbled a bit (about pushing and panting and some nonsense), which makes me think maybe Steven wasn't so happy that Randy tried to move in on his incomprehensible-criticism territory. But Steven, really, Randy was there first, dawg.

Pia Toscano, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me": Flouting Randy's request that she do something other than a ballad, Pia let her vocal talent shine bright on her favorite Elton song, promising that, if America kept her around next week, she'd "get you all moving." On Pia's final note, like Jennifer, I got goosebumps. Steven said she'd done it again and then took aim at Randy. "Some people might have been wrong up here when we asked you not to sing ballads again," noting that Pia made him "cry inside" and was "just about as good as it gets." As if suddenly remembering his schtick, he added, "That was a complete and full sentence." Jennifer said Pia's notes "take us to an otherworldly place" and said she felt her trying to break through emotionally. Randy backpedaled and said Pia had "slayed" her ballads every time and noted that he was "just trying to get you to switch up gears a little bit." He added, "I heard all of Pia tonight and Pia was great once again."

Stefano Langone, "Tiny Dancer": First, the good news: He managed to keep his eyes open and (literally) make contact with the audience, reaching out to hold Jennifer Lopez's hand at the end. With Jennifer, at least, the gambit worked: "I could really feel you taking our notes … really connecting with our audience," she said. "I really felt like you moved the crowd today." Randy hailed him for hitting "the money notes right on." And Steven said Stefano had a "sweet thing to your voice," adding that, though he sometimes found it "a little Broadway," he had "nailed it."  Me? I don't really agree. I feel like it was the schmaltziest performance of the evening. The way Stefano stretches out some notes is starting to grate on me. I'm kind of over him.

Lauren Alaina, "Candle in the Wind": Lauren, meanwhile, took a song that could have been schmaltzy -- a song that we have all heard kajillions of times -- and made it sound surprisingly new and interesting. Randy said it was "one of the greatest songs ever written" and "one of the greatest Lauren Alaina performances on this stage," calling it "very, very hot." Steven trotted out his old line about loving Lauren "since the first moment you laid eyes on me" and said if Lauren kept singing like that she'd "be able to afford the rest of that dress." Jennifer said that, perhaps for the first time, "Everybody in America got to hear what we heard" from Lauren during the audition that made them all such fans.

James Durbin, "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)": Flaming pianos. LED lighting that should have come with a warning for people with pacemakers and epilepsy. Dangerous dance moves. A microphone stand tossed who knows where. James put on a serious show -- and he had some pretty good vocal pyrotechnics too. Steven hailed him as a fellow rocker, warning him, "Don't wear out your welcome. … Don't be up there too long. You don't want to look like me." Jennifer said that when James sang, she forgot she was on a competition show but rather felt like she was at a concert. She called it  "a really full performance of a great song by a great artist. Period." Randy noted that one of the best things about James was that it's clear he's having a terrific time onstage, calling it, "a great, great, great performance." Ryan even weighed in, saying James' performance was "fearless." But apparently that wasn't quite true. What with the hairspray and leaping flames and all, James revealed that he did have one fear: that he would have a "Pepsi moment."

Thia Megia, "Daniel": Jimmy Iovine advised Thia to forget all the high school play-acting stuff she ever learned and really try to connect to the lyrics of "Daniel," a song Thia said reminded her of when her own big brother went away when she was little. She gave a less mannered performance than usual and again put her very nice vocal tone on display. But still, she managed to leave me cold. The judges, however, were appreciative: Jennifer called it "beautiful" and credited Thia with managing to internalize the lyrics. Randy liked the way the "relaxed" quality of the performance let people hear Thia's beautiful voice but added that he felt the choice was "a little safe." Steven said, "I think that when you find the right song the voice appears, right? And I think that's what happened tonight."

Casey Abrams, "Your Song": Casey had a lot to prove: not only that he could sing, but also that he actually cared about the voters' opinions. He proved it in the best way possible, by trimming up his hair and beard (though stopping short of shaving it off altogether, making his big-reveal moment a little underwhelming).  When he sang, "My gift is my song and this one's for you," he really seemed to be speaking directly to "Idol" watchers. Or could it be to the judges who'd saved him? Anyhow, the performance was sweet. And after congratulating themselves repeatedly for saving Casey (Jennifer said she'd slept like a baby afterward), the judges congratulated Casey for his performance. "Very nicely done," said Randy, summing it up.

Jacob Lusk, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word": After meeting his idol Mary J. Blige ("I've met a lot of people, but this is big," he told us), Jacob appeared onstage, standing in a cloud, and turned in one of his trademark dramatic performances, ending on a wildly impressive note. I'm thinking it might be time for Jacob to retire the gospel-choir backup singers, whom he often employs and who sometimes overpower his undeniably powerful voice. But the judges loved it -- and him. "Jacob, man, I watch how far out there or in there you get when you sing," Steven said, noting that the "first half just blew me away" and "the second half was equal … you slay me." Jennifer thought he'd made the song his own. Randy complimented Jacob's restraint and called it "brilliant."

Haley Reinhart, "Bennie and the Jets": She's been in real danger of getting voted off for weeks, but Haley proved herself worthy of the final slot. "She moves great, she has a great tone and she has a great style of singing, but she doesn't always bring all three parts to the game," Iovine noted, adding that she would do so Wednesday night. She did -- prompting Jennifer to make a squinched-up, into-the-music face that we've never seen her make before. "That was it, Haley. That was it, Haley," Jennifer said. "That's what we’ve been talking about." Randy said, "Best performance of the night right there." And Steven bestowed his highest compliment: "You sing sexy."

But at the end of the day, two singers will be headed home. Who do you think it will be? Me, I'd be OK losing Stefano and either Naima or Thia. You?

Full Show Tracker coverage of "American Idol"

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: James Durbin performs on "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

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