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'American Idol' recap: 12 talented men take the stage

March 2, 2011 |  8:58 am

MB1_7696 Oh, America, how will you choose? The degree of talent on display among the top 12 men on "American Idol" on Tuesday night was considerable. No matter which five male contestants "Idol" voters tap to go through, along with the judges' wild-card pick, there will be singers left behind who would arguably have been able to sing circles around last year's winner, Lee DeWyze. (Remember him?)

But although judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler can just slather the praise on each and every contestant at will, offering only the faintest whiff of disapproval here and there for a song choice that has failed to show a singer's true genius, as they see it, voters must choose only five men to join five of the top 12 women, who will sing Wednesday night. The judges will then add their wild-card picks; the results will be aired on Thursday night.

And we have to make our selections without the imperious input of heretofore unmissed judge Simon Cowell. On Tuesday night, judge Randy Jackson reintroduced the word "pitchy" into the "Idol" lexicon, halting a welcome hiatus in the term's use, and he seemed a little confused at finding himself not only in Cowell's old chair but in his role as mean judge -– breaking with the other judges to carp about a performance or song choice, getting booed by the audience.

But after a few halfhearted efforts at tough love, Randy seemed to give in to the kinder, gentler vibe at this year's judges table, the "we're your biggest fans; let's see what America has to say" approach favored by Jennifer and Steven. That leaves none other than us -- you, me and all the other "Idol" watchers out there -- to fill the mean-judge vacuum left by Simon this year, deciding who should go through and whose dreams must get ditched in the dust; which contestants are the true stars and which, if we're being honest, are too "karaoke"; which former favorites we will abruptly -– mercurially, nastily -- turn on.

But wait -– must we roll our eyes and smirk? Will we display our displeasure by gazing disinterestedly into our corporate-sponsored cup or making eyes at our girlfriend off camera? Will we suddenly start wearing low-cut shirts that expose our tufty chest hair? Will we -– Please! No! -– suddenly sprout tufty chest hair?

Perish the thought! But choose we must, and so here, based primarily on Tuesday night's performances, are my top five picks. Yours?

1. Casey Abrams: I was worried about Casey when I heard he'd been rushed to the hospital with some mysterious stomach illness last week. But (a la Crystal Bowersox) he was back to compete on Tuesday night, and he displayed more Seth Rogan-y charm than ever, putting a spell on us with "I Put a Spell on You." Not only is Casey musically gifted -– in ways that go way beyond his singing -– he is riveting to watch onstage (and funny!). Completely unpredictable. Love him. I worry that he's too quirky for America. Please, America, embrace the quirk.

2. Paul McDonald: Jennifer praised his moves and his smile, which she said lighted up the room. Honestly, I find his teeth distractingly white. (Is that too niggling a complaint? So be it.) But I really enjoy the soft grit in his voice, like veeeery fine sandpaper, and his jumpy, oddball delivery. And he picked just the right song: Rod Stewart's "Maggie May."  

3. Jacob Lusk: Steven said it was "divine intervention" that brought this singer to "Idol," that he was "honored" to be in Lusk's presence, and that Lusk's singing makes him cry. Jennifer welcomed him as the second coming of Luther Vandross, whose "A House is Not a Home" Lusk sang. Randy praised him for his "crazy crystal-clear high notes" and gushed that "Idol" (or the world?) was "so lucky" to have him. I thought his performance, while not as showily spectacular as his transcendent "God Bless the Child" during Hollywood Week, was top-notch. Will America concur?

4. Stefano Langone: Maybe I'm a little dazzled by his big brown eyes and puppy-cute looks (though I hadn't noticed the bulging vein on his forehead until Steven pointed it out), but I thought his rendition of "Just the Way You Are" was his best performance on "Idol" to date (amazing, just the way it was?) and worthy of getting him through to the next round. I expect a lot of you to disagree with me on this one. Am I right?

5. Scotty McCreery or James Durbin: Both of these guys gave solid performances on Tuesday night's show, and they could not have been more different from each other. I'm including both here to allow for taste variation -– we'll call one of them my "wild-card pick." McCreery sang a serene, polished rendition of John Michael Montgomery's "Letters From Home," crooning the lines while perched on a stool and gazing calmly into the camera. I confess that, in the past, on his go-to "baby, lock them doors" refrain, he has occasionally sounded (to me) like he was burping out the words. (I know, gross image.) But here, he sounded smooth and vocally supported.

Durban, meanwhile, cranked up the energy with Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin'," giving the song a soul I had no idea it had. His vocals were spot-on -– and his rock-star moves were confident and compelling and, OK, maybe a little cliche, but somehow not cheesy. Plus, I don't know, I have a soft spot for the guy, what with the Tourette's and the sad dad story, and the pretty wife and baby at home. I agree with the judges that his singing comes from a special, tender sort of place. Will Adam Lambert fans block his progress or begin to embrace him?  We'll soon find out.

Have I left out your favorite and included someone you feel is unworthy? Are you a die-hard Robbie Rosen fan? A Brett Loewenstern lover? A keeper of the Clint Jun Gamboa flame? Let me -– and the world -- know in the comments section.

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Casey Abrams performs on "American Idol" Tuesday. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox