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'American Idol' recap: The top 13 try their luck

March 10, 2011 |  9:42 am

_RAY7251 In a way, Wednesday night's "American Idol," in which the top 13 stepped onstage and sang trimmed-down versions of songs by their own musical idols, marked a new beginning, the hitting of a reset button for the competition.

"Welcome to the party … The official countdown to the finale begins tonight," Ryan Seacrest said at the outset, driving that very point home.

That's not to say that the 13 performers -- who were given the chance to hone their performances with big-name professional producers as well as this season's new in-house mentor, Interscope Geffen A&M Records CEO Jimmy Iovine –- shed the history they'd brought to Wednesday night's show. Not at all. They've already chalked up credits and demerits along the way.

Rather, there's a sense at this stage of the competition that it's really anyone's game. These 13 singers wouldn't have made it this far if they didn't have talent, especially this season when the bench is so deep. Now it's time for them to show America what they plan to do with that talent, how they plan to make us love them. It's time for them not just to wow us, but to woo us as well.

So who wooed? And who wobbled? Here's a rundown:

Lauren Alaina: The judges' flirty, confident favorite turned in a flirty, confident performance of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine," but neither Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez nor Randy Jackson was particularly impressed –- or at least not as impressed as they would like to have been. Steven said the performance needed more kick. J.Lo and Randy also felt the song choice didn't do Lauren any favors, damning her with faint praise. Lauren said she'd deliberately chosen a fun, upbeat song over a ballad in order to stand out (and to show off her personality and "country music diva" chops), but the move may have backfired. Still, it's hard to imagine she won't make it through to the next round.

Casey Abrams: The musically gifted Seth Rogen lookalike charmed us (yet again) even before he stepped onto the stage, telling us he'd chosen to perform Joe Cocker's cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends" because he admires the growl in Cocker's voice and because, "He doesn't look that hot either, and he's inspired that look for me." Then he sold the song for all he was worth, leaving J.Lo gasping that he had blown her away. "What am I watching right now?" Jennifer said she'd asked Randy midsong. "I'm watching somebody important." Randy called him "so unbelievable" and "so exciting." And Steven said Casey was "a rainbow of talent" with a "plethora of passion." I suspect Casey will get more than a little help from his friends out there in this round's fan voting.

Ashthon Jones: Maybe Jimmy Iovine raised the stakes too much when he said that Ashthon was so good that he was inviting Motown founder Berry Gordy to watch her sing, but Ashthon, as beautiful as she looked in her shiny, shiny dress, didn't really manage to hit all the notes performing Diana Ross's "When You Tell Me That You Love Me." Perhaps she'd been working too hard on nailing high notes she said she'd never attempted before at the expense of the rest of the notes. Or perhaps she was just nervous. The judges, who'd kept her in the competition as a wild card, seemed a bit disappointed, though they praised her professionalism and presence. Steven said he believed there was a lot more to Ashthon than she's shown us. But if that's true, I'm not sure she'll get the chance.

Paul McDonald: Paul picked a song by Ryan Adams -- "with an R," he emphasized -- whom it turns out Jennifer Lopez had never heard of. Before Paul sang Iovine told him he had to nail the chorus, that, though he had a great voice, his success on this night depended on his "intensity." If by intensity Iovine meant hopping across the stage and delivering the song with jerky motions, then Paul delivered. In truth, vocally, Paul's performance seemed a bit slack. The judges once again hailed Paul's uniqueness, just before Randy compared him to a bunch of groups like Whiskeytown (Adams' old band) and Wilco and the Traveling Wilburys. I like Paul and think he should make it through based on his really interesting vocal tone –- or if only to see Ryan Seacrest do his Paul McDonald impression by hopping across the stage and gesturing spastically all over again.

Pia Toscano: "Can Pia top her stellar performance from last week?" Ryan inquired. Miraculously, the answer was yes, blowing the audience, the judges and lord knows who else away with a superpotent take on Celine Dion's "All by Myself." Lopez was struck speechless, turning in several seconds of dead air after Pia sang. Randy declared that Pia was among the very few "Idol" singers who had the chops to tackle songs by Mariah, Whitney and Celine, said he was "in awe" of her and that she had given a "very hot, dope, cool performance." But Steven really seemed to capture the essence of what, in addition to her voice, I've come to most admire about Pia: her hardworking, roll-up-the-sleeves, rise-to-a-challenge spirit. (I loved the offstage glimpse we had of her wearing glasses, with her hair up, talking about how she was going to achieve her long-held goal of singing Celine by rehearsing until she got it right.) "That was the sum total of all the work you've done until now," Steven told Pia, then added, in a nod toward her fierce, low-key determination, "Happy International Woman's Day, by the way … You just slammed it."

James Durbin: He lost the tail –- and gained some leather fringe around his neck. Durbin seems to be gaining even more confidence, turning in a fine rendition of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed." Randy said James was "one of my favorites in this whole thing" because he can sing pretty much anything, and proclaimed, "James Durbin is dangerous, America." Steven said something incomprehensible about James kicking things "into next week," adding, only slightly more comprehensibly, "If there was ever a review to be said about you, you just sang it," or something like that. Jennifer compared James to "the greatest rock singers." Backstage, Durbin said he was happy just to have made it this far, but he'll probably go further.

Haley Reinhart: Not sure which judge called some of the singing Haley did in LeAnn Rimes' "Blue," yodeling, but I'm guessing that word didn't do her any favors with the "Idol" voters. The judges were split on Reinhart's selection of the tune, originally written for Patsy Cline. Steven said the part of America that loves country and western music was "roaring"; Randy called it "a little sleepy and a little boring." I actually really liked it and was relieved to see Haley stand still behind the mic. Personally, I think what could hold her back is not vocal quality or song choice, but that she doesn't seem nearly as comfortable onstage as a lot of the other singers. But America clearly sees something in Haley, having put her in its top 10 over at least three of the other 13 finalists.

Jacob Lusk: Lusk soared (as usual) with R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." I could have done without the robed chorus, which was a bit distracting. But the judges summed it up well. Steven hailed Jacob's "pure passion," predicting his talent and voice will "soar way beyond your wildest dreams." J.Lo said it was difficult to judge Jacob because he made her "feel so much." Randy said Lusk was "unbelievable" and shared that he was "excited every time you hit the stage." Personally, I'd like to hear more about the "wet room" at the spa where Jacob works as a concierge. I'm guessing Jacob will have a chance to tell us a bit more about that in future weeks -– censors willing.

Thia Megia: Thia took a risk by singing a jazzed-up version of Michael Jackson's "Smile." (When someone pointed out the song actually dated back to Charlie Chaplin, she seemed confused: "Charlie Chapman?" But she's young; surely we can forgive?) The song was a total sleeper. Even the judges didn't like it that much. Jennifer said of the performance: "It doesn't matter. You sing like an angel." We'll see if it matters to America. I'm guessing the voters will give Thia the benefit of the doubt this time.

Stefano Langone: Stefano, the only male contestant who made it through as one of the judges' wild-card picks, said he knew he had to "let America see my soul" to stay in the competition. He put everything he had into Stevie Wonder's "Lately." Steven thought he pulled it off "beautiful." Jennifer said he had her dancing. Randy said Stevie would be proud, that Stefano had "slayed" it, and that the song built so that, by the middle of it, Stefano was "soaring." I like Stefano's humility. Let's see what America thinks of his soul.

Karen Rodriguez: Creepy revelation of the evening: Rodriguez, whose mother used to dress her up as Selena and trot her out to sing, has Selena Barbie dolls in her room! Without her mother to blame, Karen again dressed up as Selena and sang "I Could Fall in Love." I have the feeling that -- based in part on Iovine cautioning not to oversing, and not to talk on the phone or even e-mail (ha!) before her performance –- Rodriguez might have been having some trouble with her voice. That may be why she sounded sort of cautious in her lower register, though she gained momentum as the song reached higher. "I know you can sing so much better," Steven said, echoing the sentiment of the other judges. I bet we'll get a chance for Karen to prove that true.

Scotty McCreery: Baseball, country music –- Scotty turned in an all-American, apple-pie performance of Garth Brooks' "The River." Jennifer rightly noted that he seems to be just beginning to open up to the audience as a performer. (I thought he made progress even as the song went on.) Randy seemed to turn the oft-heard "Idol" advice about trying new things and pushing boundaries on its head and hailed Scotty's decision to stay in his comfort zone. "If it ain't broke, don't even think about fixing it," he said. Scotty gets his own rules -- but does he deserve them?

Naima Adedapo: Naima seems to have been given the "pimp" spot at the end of the show based not on her vocals, but on her production values. There were projected raindrops and flashes of lightning during her peculiar rendition of Rihanna's "Umbrella," but the singing was kind of soggy. The judges noted her pitchiness but hailed her "flavor." I've got a bad feeling that Naima may be headed back to her old job soon. Ugh, the toilets. Maybe, now that she's had a flash of fame, the concert-hall managers will promote her?

What did you think of the performers Wednesday night? Are your favorites still your favorites? Were there any surprises? Weigh in!

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Lauren Alaina performs in front of the judges. Credit: Ray Mickshaw / Fox