‘American Idol’ Recap: The Top 24 Begin To Emerge From Sin City

Ever watch “American Idol” and think, “You know, I like watching amateurs perform, but I wish I could watch them sing four seconds of a Beatles song surrounded by oversized props on a hydraulic-enhanced stage”? Well, Wednesday night’s (February 23) new Vegas round episode was just for you.

It was supposed to be a full two hours of people saying they’ve never heard of the Beatles, Steven Tyler waxing poetically about living in “Beatle Land” and awkward Seacrest interviews set in a makeshift Coca-Cola/Ford room that got integrated marketing execs horny. But then Jennifer Lopez had to go and have a meltdown when she told Chris Medina that he wasn’t good enough to be on the show and producers said, “Eh, let’s chop out that boring Vegas singing part. Who watches ‘Idol’ for the music anyway?”

Perhaps that’s why the Vegas-set half of Wednesday’s super-sized episode often felt like we were getting a greatest hits collection instead of a fully-formed album. Think the Beatles 1 versus Abbey Road. (Trust me, I’ll get to the big reveal of the first five official “AI:X” cast members in a little. But if I go out of order, my sleep-deprived brain will sputter like blushing bride Ashley Sullivan off her meds.)

show|null|video|625713

The conceit of Vegas Night reminded me of a “Top Chef” Quickfire Challenge. “You only have 24 hours to cook up a Beatles duet or group number. Also, make a quiche. Go!” And boy, did the contestants bring their finest cheese to the stage.

Casey Abrams and Chris Medina — who bonded instantly over their mutual disdain for hair care — donned matching acoustic guitars, coordinated fedoras and bright white socks for “A Hard Day’s Night.” They also choreographed jumping on a giant prop bed because they desperately want to be the stars of some twisted fan fiction in which Chris’ fiancé Juliana will be an unwilling participant. (Just like “Idol”!)

But nobody out-cheesed Denise Jackson, Lauren Alaina and Scott McCreery. At first I felt bad for this team. Jimmy Iovine and his army of too-cool-for-school producer thugs waltzed into their rehearsal unannounced and barked that “If I Fell” needed to be changed. (Wait, is this the role that Jimmy Iovine is playing on the show? Meddling middle management nincompoop?)

The group settled on one of the most annoying Beatles tunes ever recorded in “Hello Goodbye” and jazzed it up by running around a British phone booth. Steven Tyler likened the performance to a Marx Brothers folly; I likened hearing Scott hit high notes to the Crash Test Dummies singer dude getting smacked in the crotch. Good job, Jimmy Iovine!

The new mentor had better advice for Jacob Lusk, who has a tendency to bring the hiccupping Holy Ghost to everything he sings. (Imagine Lusk’s “Happy Birthday.” Now give yourself five minutes to stop laughing before you continue reading.) Iovine compared Jacob’s vocal agility to Bono’s in some strange way that kind of made sense at the time, and then added, “If [Bono] used [his vocal power] all the time, he’d be working in a café in Dublin. Or a pub.” (As opposed to where Bono is now, using his vocal power to seriously injure Broadway actors.) But duly noted, Jimmy Iovine. You hate over-singing. Yet you’re on “Idol.” That’s like hating sunshine and moving to Florida. You best be investing in some sun block, partner.

Lusk, Haley Reinhart and Naima Adedapo took Jimmy’s advice to heart when they performed “The Long and Winding Road.” Instead of making it a tuneless 15-minute diaphragm exercise of vocal runs, they reigned it in to 12 minutes. Progress! But Randy Jackson thought Lusk lost sight of what makes him special, and compared his voice to a car with gas that’s not going anywhere. This Lusk guy, always on the receiving end of cockamamie comparisons.

And then, Jacob solidified his place in my heart by responding, “We were told to be extremely, extremely, extremely, extremely cautious, so I tried to give a little bit but I didn’t want to take it all the way to Ebenezer Baptist on y’all.” Who uses the same word four times for emphasis? Jacob Lusk does, that’s who. This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I’m currently taking submissions for a Lusk Fan Club name. (Lusk For Life? Lucky In Lusk?)

“I Saw Her Standing There” singers Tatynisa Wilson, Lakeisha Lewis and Jerome Bell also thought “more is more” when it came time to perform, and I’m not just talking about their vocals. Their outfits were a parade of future “What Not To Wear” episodes. Tatynisa stole an Eartha Kitt catsuit from 1968 and combined it with a zebra-print wrap/robe/Snuggie thing I imagine Eartha Kitt wore in 2008. Meanwhile, Lakeisha rocked a juvenile hair clip that made her look like a 14-year-old who dressed up like Mandisa for Halloween. And Jerome Bell’s dangling rope epaulettes? Randy Jackson wore those on an “Idol” finale four years ago, dawg! If you’re going to bite someone’s look, at least bite his or her latest fashion statement.

At the other end of the performance spectrum, understated Nashville musicians Paul McDonald and Kendra Chantelle stole the show with a tender “Blackbird” duet that barely registered above a whisper. The unlikely duo looked like a Disney princess and her twitchy troll sidekick that used to be a kinkajou, but their voices came together beautifully.

We got another look at McDonald later where he showed up to the Top 24 reveal sporting a countrified white and red embroidered flower suit and sang an original song for the judges. The Nashville native looks like Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad,” with a low-key happy-go-lucky vibe like Matthew McConaughey. Therefore, I will call him Rhinestoned Cowboy.

Speaking of fashion, Rachel Zevita sang “Eleanor Rigby” dressed like she was going to a 1985 West Berlin funeral. It brought up an interesting conundrum: Since these people did not pack for this Beatles/Vegas trip, that means that Zevita had that crazy get-up packed in her bag for Hollywood Week. I guess she wanted to be prepared in case she got a phone call that Nena died.

James Durbin has a style all his own too, combining the ’80s suburban angst of chain wallets with a ’90s Latin gang bandana and a “towel out of the butt” look that is always timeless. But his most cherished accessory is his “Fail Wail,” a high pitched ear-piercing shriek that he thinks is a zillion times better than it actually is. Durbin’s “Get Back” duet partner, Stefano Langone, sang like a Japanese tourist at a karaoke bar and stiffly stomped around the stage like a petulant child with a load in his pants. Important to note that the judges liked these two.

The judges also dug “Fame” school graduates Pia Toscano and (MySpace’s) Karen Rodriguez, Lauren Turner and Jovany Barreto’s “Let It Be,” and especially Tim Halperin and Julie Zorrilla’s sincere “Something.” They each played keyboards while making bedroom eyes at the cameras (and at each other), causing me to wonder whether they’d be tickling one another’s ivories later that night. With his sleepy appeal and singer/songwriter vibe, I predict that Tim Halperin will win this season. On a separate note, I predict that Julie Zorrilla will be in my dreams tonight.

That is, of course, if I’m not already dreaming about my new true love Peggi Blu, the “vocal coach from hell.” Her rehearsal rant against Thia Megia and Melinda Ademi is an instant classic. “You’re gonna die on stage in front of all those people,” she hissed as the two timid teens fidgeted uncomfortably. “I’m gonna be layin’ in my bed watching you just croak. And when I get the phone call that says, ‘Did you do these two?’ I’m gonna go ‘Hayle no!’” Peggi Blu is Alec Baldwin in the “Idol” production of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” More of her please! (Side note: I know she was speaking figuratively, but wouldn’t Peggi be racked with guilt if, in some kind of freak fatal accident, a giant Sgt. Pepper logo decapitated Thia and Melinda?)

By the end of the two-day Vegas adventure, we said goodbye to Denise Jackson and Melinda Ademi, as well as a big chunk of early favorites. People like goofball surfer Carson Higgins, White House intern Molly DeWolf Swenson, New York rocker Caleb Hawley and a weepy DeBarge lookalike. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see much of the performances that did them in. Instead, we were held hostage by “Idol” editors who incorrectly thought Ashley Sullivan’s shotgun Vegas wedding was essential viewing. Ashley’s hapless husband looked just as disinterested as I was. Here’s to a lifetime of happiness, newlyweds!

The second half was devoted to the painfully slow Top 24 reveal. This season, it was set in a massive airplane hangar for no apparent reason other than they could extend contestants final walk to the judges. The longer the walk, the longer we get to hear the contestants’ echoey voice-overs about wanting to be famous. Look for this to be taped in the Mall of America next year.

These episodes live and die by the contestants’ reactions to their good fortunes, and first Top 24 member Naima Adedapo set the bar high. The emotional toilet-scrubbing dashiki enthusiast leaped out of her chair to tell Jennifer Lopez that she wanted to be an “In Living Color” Fly Girl. The only way this moment could have brought me more joy is if she somehow brought up “Gigli,” too.

Clint Jun Gamboa — who keeps mangling opportunities producers give him to apologize for making Jacee Badeaux cry — playfully expressed frustration that the judges keep successfully faking him out when they give him good news. First of all, just wait until Seacrest holds a results card in his hand. Second of all, if you keep giving producers these over-the-top reactions, they’re going to keep pulling your chain. If you found a vending machine that gave away free Cheez-Its by kicking its sweet spot, wouldn’t you go back to that vending machine every day? Who says no to free Cheez-Its?!

I can’t imagine producers messing with Haley Reinhart throughout the season. Upon hearing that she had made it into the Top 24, she acted like she had just walked into a Starbucks that was handing out free samples of a new beverage. “Oh, I’m allowed to take this? This is free? Are you sure? I don’t know about this. If it’s free, it’s going to taste like ass. I guess that’s OK. I don’t know. I’d rather just stick with what I know.”

At first, diva-in-training Ashton Jones gave the classic happy/weepy reaction. But then, as if I couldn’t love her any more (how can I resist a girl who fashions her hair to be like that crazy wig Whoopi Goldberg wore at the beginning of “Sister Act”?), she successfully tricked her entourage into thinking she had been cut. Clint Jun Gamboa ran into frame to join Ashton’s family in solidarity. “Isn’t that fake-out the worst? By the way, I don’t regret kicking Jacee out of my Hollywood Week group, OK? That kid cramps my style.”

So far, the Top 24 reveal is more noteworthy for who didn’t make the cut. (Did you change your Facebook status when you found out you’ll be able to vote for Clint Jun Gamboa? To quote Peggi Blu, “Hayle no.”)

Teen Hollie Cavanagh was the first to be dropped in a shocking moment that showed dissension on the panel. “I was out-voted here. I wanted to put you through because I honestly believe you have one of the best voices and you belong in the Top 24,” she said firmly before encouraging the youngster to try out again in a year or two. “Pssshh, I’m taking my butt to ‘The X Factor.’ Nobody’s going to care about ‘Idol’ next year,” said Hollie to her mom in the car on the ride home.

For all the hype about the teen contestants, “Idol” is showing no mercy when it comes to weeding the minors out from the final cast. Deandre Brackensick, whose Hollywood Week group earned a standing ovation from the judges, was the next to go. He took the bad news well, but I worry that his stage mom is going to refuse to feed him as punishment.

However, these two cuts (along with blink-and-you-missed-’em singers Lakeisha Lewis and Alex Ryan) were mere footnotes compared to the biggest “Idol” bombshell of the night, when the judges ultimately turned away Chris Medina.

The polarizing singer has been a headline since his initial Milwaukee audition, where he brought his brain-damaged girlfriend to meet the judges. Cynics cried “Exploitative scum!” Others shouted, “Great man! Big heart!” I wonder if Chris was aware of his celebrity when this episode taped last week, which makes his final song choice — Coldplay’s “Fix You” — either the most obnoxious or genius pick possible. Even if icky motives guided him there, his final performance was gut-wrenching — emotionally honest and in the moment, but technically a mess.

And that’s what Jennifer Lopez slowly, carefully and clearly expressed to Medina when the axe fell. “At the end of the day, this is about singing,” she said.

You could instantly see Chris’ realization that his time was up. Regardless of how you feel about Medina as a man (and after all this time I’m still undecided), his audition will go down as an important factor in why America fell in love with the new judging panel. Steven Tyler showed his true colors when he bent down and covered Juliana in kisses. Jennifer Lopez’s heartfelt elimination speech demonstrated she can handle a delicate situation masterfully. The way Steven and Randy comforted a weeping Lopez showed that their on-air chemistry and camaraderie is for real.

This is “American Idol,” and it’s officially back.

What did you think of Wednesday night’s Vegas Spectacular? Are you excited about our first five semi-finalists? Are you excited to hear Chris Medina’s upcoming single “What Are Words”? (I’m not making that up.) And did you catch J. Lo tell Ashton Jones that “Idol” is looking for someone who can sing and dance? Either Lopez thinks she’s on a different show or “Idol” is about to get even crazier.

Leave a comment below, and for more “Idol” thoughts, follow me on Twitter @jambajim.