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'American Idol' recap: The top 11 tackle Motown

March 24, 2011 |  9:46 am

_PG21823 No one ever said it was easy to be a contestant on "American Idol" – and sure, you expect to get criticism (constructive, one hopes) from the judges. But having your mother's cooking dissed? That seems a little beyond the pale.

In one of the more uncomfortable moments of "American Idol" on Wednesday night, host Ryan Seacrest approached chef Gordon Ramsey, who was holding a Tupperware container of penne apparently cooked by contestant Stefano Langone's adorable mama. Ryan asked Ramsey (one of many celebrities in the audience that night –- Steven Tyler's daughter Liv among them) what he thought of the pasta dish, to which Ramsey replied: "Thank God he can sing." Pressed, the celebrity chef unconvincingly declared the food "fine," before Seacrest snatched the container away and moved on.

Sheesh. Ramsey makes Simon Cowell look as softhearted as Jennifer Lopez.

As usual, Lopez and her fellow judges heaped praise on the 11 finalists -– whom Seacrest reminded us in the show's opening moments were jockeying for the chance to go on the "American Idol" tour this summer -– as they tried to show America their soulful sides on Motown night.

Here's a rundown:

Casey Abrams: Casey – spiffed up a bit, with hair slicked down and wearing a dark suit over a wine-colored button-down -– tackled "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and gave us the first taste of the stepped-up production values that defined the night. Accompanied by backup singers and a line of violin players, Casey strolled through the audience (taking time to sing directly to a female pal of his) and tried to remember musical mentor Jimmy Iovine's direction to contain his natural musical enthusiasm. I thought maybe he contained it a little too much; it wasn't one of Casey's most uplifting performances. But the judges ate it up. Steven called Casey the "perfect" entertainer, with perfect pitch and "crazy, out-of-control ego," apparently meaning that in the best way possible. "Is there anybody like you out there?" Jennifer wondered. "I don't think there is." And Randy called Casey a "true original."

Thia Megia: Thia set out to prove that she could sing something other than boring ballads, taking on the upbeat "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave." She bounced her way through it -- looking adorably young (in a fluffy-pink-chiffon-skirted dress) and sounding impressively mature -- and ultimately achieved her goal. "OK, now I feel like we're scratching the surface with you," Jennifer said. "It was great to see you let loose a little like that." Randy encouraged her to dig even "deeper," chanting "push, push, push…" as if he was in the maternity ward. And Steven, who seemed a little wiftier than usual tonight, said he thought it was "just great. … I'm good with it."

Jacob Lusk: In a performance that prompted Steven to rush up afterward and give him a hug, Jacob showed a new restraint that caught fire when it collided with his all-in vocals on "You're All I Need to Get By." Randy couldn't have been any more laudatory, proclaiming, "Yo, yo, yo man. The great [Motown founder] Berry Gordy is somewhere saying, 'Oh my god'" and calling it "the second best performance ever" on "Idol" (the first being Jacob's own take on "God Bless the Child" during Hollywood Week). "You know what was wrong with that performance guys?" Randy added. "Absolutely nothing." (Actually, Randy, Jacob did make some strange faces in there.) Jennifer seconded Randy's enthusiasm, telling Jacob, "You made us beg for those notes … You move me." Ryan was so moved he invited the whole first row to come up and give Jacob a hug, which was actually pretty cute, even though that poor man at the end was robbed.
Lauren Alaina:  Lauren may or may not have been referring to her critics in the media, whose sometimes unflattering coverage she said had been getting her down, when she sang "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Jennifer thought Lauren, wearing a flowing black-and-white animal print gown, looked "amazing" and admired the way she "threw your head and your neck into it … So much attitude."  Randy said, "She's now got her swagger on high, dude. She's ready." And Lauren's not-at-all-secret admirer Steven offered the highest (and strangest praise): "Well, baby, you ripped that song another beauty mark, didn't you? That was just beautiful." Set him free, why don't you, Lauren?

Stefano Langone: After Stefano and Ryan discussed the home-cooked meal Stefano's mom made for the group (which they apparently enjoyed quite a bit, Mr. Ramsey), Stefano tackled Lionel Richie's "Hello" (he'd never heard the song before -– why, why, why must "Idol" keep reminding us how old we are?), vowing to pull back a little, keep his eyes open and connect with the audience. None of which, alas, he did, turning in a schmaltzy performance during which he struggled early on to conquer his closing eyelids (looking more than anything like he's squelching a sneeze) and then surrendered, allowing his lids to shade his peepers until looking into the camera at the end to whisper a cheesy "I love you." The judges congratulated Stefano on his pipes before letting him know that the connection was missing. "I don't want the intensity coming from you want[ing] to do well," Jennifer said in a rare moment of critique, noting that to reach the audience, the song "has to come from the heart." I suspect the fact that Stefano clearly broke a promise to the "Idol" audience -– "I will keep my eyes open this time" -– will spell his doom.

Haley Reinhart: Haley, who has been lurking in the bottom three and is trying to recover from a notorious lipstick mishap, may have had more to prove than any of the other singers on Wednesday night -– and she vowed to go out there and sing "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" with the confidence of someone who had nothing to lose. I admit, I was a little worried about her walking down the stairs in absurdly high heels, especially since moving confidently onstage has been a problem for her. But she turned in her best performance in weeks, prompting Randy to note that she'd come "roaring back." Steven said she didn't "look a day over fabulous," whatever that means. And Jennifer said she had more soul in her voice than any singer in the competition except Jacob. We'll see if that's enough to keep Haley in it, but if it's not, at least she'll leave on a high note (discounting her post-performance Sally Field moment backstage).

Scotty McCreery: Is it fair that Haley's body movement onstage is under fire while Scotty's peculiar twisting and writhing movements and finger points are given a free pass? Does it reflect a gender double-standard on "Idol"? (After all, Scotty can throw a basketball into a net from an impressively far distance.) Discuss! And while you're doing that, I'll note that the judges, for their part, thought Scotty's "For Once In My Life," while not his best vocal performance, showed him to be, as Randy put it, "the young ladykiller, dude." Ryan, for his part, proved himself to be the young contestant confuser (dude), perplexing poor Scotty by asking him, "Is the voice inside your head that deep as well?" Whoa.

Pia Toscano: Pia did it again, standing front and center and singing the heck out of "All In Love Is Fair." But can the hard-working, immensely talented singer whom Ryan has dubbed "the pride of Howard Beach" do anything but soaring ballads? Even the judges are now looking for something different from her. "You can have a career like Celine Dion. You have that special of a voice," Jennifer told Pia, but said she was going to have to start moving around the stage a little more. "The next time bring something different to the table," Randy said. "You can't live by ballads alone … Give me a midtempo." Steven called her the closest star in the "Idol" universe, but he, too, wanted her to step it up. Backstage, Pia vowed that, should America give her another week, she'll work hard to prove herself worthy.

Paul McDonald:  Paul brought out his guitar and smiled his way through his own folk-rock version of "The Tracks of My Tears." It was a little cheery, but undeniably distinctive, which pleased the judges. Randy particularly liked Paul's more tender moments. Steven compared him to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, in that his voice is so immediately recognizable. Jennifer called him "the most … seasoned performer that we have" this season, noting, "all you need is a good producer, and there you go." I'll add that Paul even has the rock-star arena wave down pat.

Naima Adedapo: Instead of retreating from the dancing-while-singing stuff that has gotten her into trouble in recent weeks, Naima went all in with a version of "Dancing in the Street" that incorporated African dance. The judges were smitten. "It was E to the Z to the tweedlydee," said Steven. "You're an exciting performer ... I love watching you," said Jennifer, noting that the performance brought her "my first goosebumps of the night." Randy thought the performance was "smart." Which is not the word I would use to describe Naima's bell-bottomed pantsuit.

James Durbin: James was given the final "pimp" spot for his performance of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City." I thought it was kind of uneven (if undeniably energetic) and ended on a strange note, but Jennifer was over the moon. "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," she said, encouraging James to bask in the audience applause -- "Soak it up, soak it up." She then said the performance had left her "speechless." Randy said it started a bit rough, but then hit its stride and became "unbelievable." Steven said, "I think sometimes it takes a little bit of being crazy to make a difference in this world and that's what you are all about … and you nailed it."

I'm guessing the bottom three will be Naima, Haley and Stefano. What are your predictions? Who do you think will go home Thursday night – and who do you think deserves another chance?

Full Show Tracker coverage of "American Idol"

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Jacob Lusk performs on "American Idol" Wednesday. CR: Michael Becker/ Fox.