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'American Idol' recap: Top 12 'ladies' take the stage

March 1, 2012 | 10:10 am

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Kicking off "American Idol" on Wednesday night, just before the top 12 women (why must the writers and Ryan Seacrest call them "ladies"?) took the stage, Seacrest strolled past the contestants and wondered whether one of them would become "our first female winner in five seasons"?

Not if the judges have anything to say about it, apparently. Honestly, I'm feeling kind of ticked off at Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez right now. After gushing all over the male contestants Tuesday night -- and I mean the kind of "I love you, man" hang-over-each-other's-shoulders-and-weep outpourings you'd expect at the end of a long night of drinking or something -– the judges (though less so Steven Tyler) suddenly decided to sober up and get all tough-love on the poor, unsuspecting women who paraded before them to give it a go Wednesday.

While male wipe-outs such as Eben Franckewitz and Chase Likens were damned only with faint praise, and other so-so contestants were praised to the hilt, Jackson in particular seems to have found his teeth somewhere in his Coke cup, and used them to take some nasty nips at some of "Idol's" more unfortunate "ladies." (Easy there, dawg.)

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To be fair, under questioning by Seacrest, the judges did acknowledge that they'd been a little gentle on the fellows Tuesday, chalking it up to first-night enthusiasm. And they were over-the-moon about some of the female contestants too. But still … after seeing the same soft-on-the-men, harsh-on-the-women pattern take hold last year, it's hard not to feel concerned. Here's hoping America sees fit to chuck the judges' uneven comments aside and make their own decisions.

So … the performances:

Chelsea Sorrell: After giving us an amusing tour of her hometown -– showing us the local grocery store, "Bi-Rite," she quipped, "they don't even know how to spell in my town" -– and confessing that she just wanted to make her mommy and daddy proud and avoid tripping in her heels, she tackled Carrie Underwood's "Cowboy Casanova," giving what I thought was a pretty growly-good performance. The judges, however, were fairly unimpressed. Lopez acknowledged the stress of going first but found Sorrell's singing a "little bit nasally" and Tyler warned "watch your phrasing." My guess: Sorrell will probably pay a steep price for being the one to lead off the night.

Erika Van Pelt: The motorbike-riding mobile DJ turned in a sultry version of Heart's "What About Love?" reminding me vocally of Cher at certain moments, while striding around the stage like a truck driver. The judges seemed momentarily to have been transformed back to their old gushy selves. Tyler, who has unexpectedly emerged as the most consistent judge (if also consistently confounding) praised Van Pelt's confidence and called her performance "magical." And Jackson compared Van Pelt to Adele and for some reason suddenly got excited about the idea of her being a "singing DJ." But Lopez thought Van Pelt could have pushed herself even further. Me? I like Van Pelt's tone. Plus, she seems down-to-earth and has a nice smile. I'd keep her around.

Jennifer Hirsh: She has one of my favorite voices in the competition, but her take on Adele's "One and Only" (a song we would hear again before the night was over) was definitely not one of the best performances we've seen from her. The judges dug it, though. "A really great job," Lopez said. "You got it," Tyler said. "One of the greatest singers in the competition this year," Jackson said. Judges' assessment aside, this California girl should definitely make it through to the next round, if only based on her Hollywood Week solo performance of "Georgia on My Mind."

Brielle Von Hugel: This Staten Island cheerleader started off a bit low and shaky at the beginning of Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," in which someone ridiculously decided to have her sit next to camera-stealing contestant Heejun Han (who clearly tried to show restraint, bless his heart). But then she gathered steam and kicked into high gear. The judges loved her ability to entertain and her "swagger." But is it wrong to admit that I find her personality off-putting? (I don't think it's only the modified Snooki pouf and penchant for referring to herself in the third person, either.)

Hallie Day: I like this low-key Baltimore waitress with the Marilyn Monroe hair color and vulnerability. She turns in a jazzy version of "Feeling Good," that leaves us all feeling good. But after Lopez and Tyler offer their praise, Jackson flashes at his apparent vow to tap into his internal Simon Cowell for the evening, asking Day what sort of singer she wants to be and saying he's not sure where she fits in. That doesn't bode well for poor Hallie.…

Skylar Laine: This 18-year-old country-singing spitfire exploded with a rocking country performance of "Stay With Me" by Faces, which the judges rightly assessed as "Reba mixed with Kelly Clarkson" or "like Tina Turner went country." Tyler called her "a pistol," and she may just have fired up the necessary voting bloc to carry her through.

Baylie Brown: Ugh. This Barbie-doll pretty singer turned in a performance only her devoted grandpa (and all those would-be Kens out there) could love. It was stiff, off-key, just painful to watch -- and to hear. The judges complimented her on her looks, which is really just about all they could do. Bye-bye, Baylie.

Hollie Cavanagh: The Texas teen (is it me, or does she have a distinctly non-Texas accent?) showed off her vocal power on Christina Aguilera's "Reflection." Tyler thought Cavanagh's performance was "just beautiful," but urged her to let her hair down (which sounded a little creepy coming from him). Lopez and Jackson, though, thought she could have done better. "It wasn't all perfect tonight," Jackson said, adding, "the parts that were perfect were genius." He said he was "still pulling" for her. Uh-oh.

Haley Johnsen: This felt like the first time -– and will probably be the last time -– we've seen this 23-year-old Oregon barista. Her "Sweet Dreams" started well enough, then went off the rails, recovering a bit at the end. Still, when Jackson followed Tyler and Lopez's encouraging words with the phrase "It was a bit of a nightmare for me instead of a dream," adding that it was "pitchy all over the place," all the oxygen seemed to leave the room. "Just trying to keep it real," he said. But he really seemed to be changing the rules of the game in the middle. Everyone else gets faint praise when they stink, except this poor girl? Seacrest gave him a chance to back off, but Jackson just piled on further, calling Johnsen's performance "trainwrecky." So long, Haley.

Shannon Magrane: The judges are enchanted with Magrane's famous pops, former MLB pitcher Joe Magrane. Even Tyler seems a little frightened of him, telling him he "didn't mean it" when he called 16-year-old Shannon "hot, humid and happening" during auditions. Then after we saw a glimpse of the Magranes' super-fancy house, Shannon stepped into the spotlight in a debutante ball gown and urged us to light the world with our candles as she sang  "Go Light Your World." It was like something out of the Miss America talent competition. But the judges LOVED it. Jackson praised her vibrato and tempts Joe Magrane's anger by calling Shannon "hot." Lopez said the song gave her "goosies." Tyler confused us by saying his "reality check bounced." But something about this girl leaves me cold. She looks like she's selling a song, growls and gestures emotively in the right places, but something fails to connect. It's like those people whose smile never reaches their eyes. Am I the only one who feels that way?

Jessica Sanchez: In an interview with Seacrest before taking the stage to sing, Sanchez explained that she'd had some voice problems leading up to the performance, and that her vocal cords were still swollen, but she thought she could pull it off. Pull it off she did, turning in a rousing rendition of Jennifer Hudson's "Love You I Do" that seemed to hold back nothing. She got a standing ovation from the judges. Jackson called her one of the best singers in the competition, Lopez praised her "swagger" and "control," and Tyler said both her pitch and voice were "perfect." If there's any justice, she'll sail through to the next round.

Elise Testone: Given the coveted final slot and charming us beforehand by declaring that "Idol" offered "exposure that you can't getting anywhere else and I need to be exposed," Testone gave the evening's second version of Adele's "One and Only." She began seated at the piano, and then got up and sang -- well, if not quite all that electrically. The judges love her, though –- Lopez called her "one of the best singers, maybe the best singer, here." We haven't quite seen that, but I hope Testone goes through if only as a reward for making a hairpiece out of the flowers that came on her room-service trays. Love. That.

So what did you think of the evening's performances? Which women do you hope to see advance to the next round?


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-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Elise Testone performs in front of the judges on "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / Fox