American Idol: Bring on the quirk
Well hello, Pittsburgh.
The so-called City of Champions produced some contenders on Thursday's episode of American Idol, but it also piqued my interest in Season 11 in a way that Wednesday's episode did not.
For one thing, it was only an hour long, so there was a minimum of filler and one good audition after another: not a stinker in the bunch. Only one of the 10 singers we watched didn't get a ticket to Hollywood, not so much because he was bad as ill-prepared.
We also saw some real characters on Thursday. Whether they'll survive the tilt toward blandness that tends to creep in as the live shows begin remains to be seen (that's assuming they even make it past Hollywood, since we're only on show No. 2).
If nothing else, the likes of Heejun Han and Reed Grimm (great name!) were balm for the soul of the jaded Idol viewer.
Take Heejun, 22, a Korean American who lives in Flushing, N.Y., and works as a non-profit organizer. Hands up if you expected a terrible audition (especially after he said he was singing Michael Bolton's "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You"), even William Hung bad.
We were treated to a preamble that had Heejun saying he didn't think he was any good compared to other auditioners and talking nonsense with Ryan Seacrest, including comparing the sizes of their heads.
"I was nervous before, but I think I drank plenty of teas and stuff, so I'm okay," Heejun said.
He started his audition by holding his arms out and shaking them, and exclaiming "Hoo!": a gesture the judges mocked. But guess what? Heejun can sing and pretty well at that. Plus, it turns out there's a sly sense of humour beneath the awkwardness. "Hollywooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooood," sang Heejun. "I'm coming!"
Reed Grimm, a 26-year-old nanny from Ellsworth, Wis., threw the judges another curve when he told them he was going to sing the theme song from Family Matters. He turned it into a jazzy, dare I say Buble-ish tour de force, swinging in his mismatched plaid shorts, baseball shirt and sandals.
Hey, Pittsburgh's never been called the City of Fashion, as far as I know.
"You were crazy, that was genius," said Steven Tyler. Then Reed, who's been performing with his musician parents since he was 2, set off a sort of bidding war among the judges, with Randy Jackson declaring a zillion per cent yes, Jennifer Lopez one-upping him with a gazillion per cent and Steven upstaging both of them with "supercalifragilistically" yes.
We didn't see much of Aaron Marcellus, 27, a voice teacher from Teaneck, N.J., but what we did see of his performance of "A Change Is Gonna Come" I liked a lot.
Then there was Samantha Novacek, 19, a server from Sutersville, Pa. Apparently she sings better when her sister Patricia Bell, a.k.a. Patty the Pittsburgh Planker, is planking, i.e. lying belly-down with arms at her sides and legs rigid. So there was Patty planking for all she was worth on the floor as Samantha sang Faith Hill's "Like We Never Loved at All" in a strong, pleasant voice.
The judges really liked Samantha and they also seemed to like Patty, since she got a ticket to Hollywood, too. And then the whole family, waiting outside the audition room, planked.
How far can Idol carry the joke? We'll find out in Hollywood.
Speaking of jokes, I wasn't certain whether to laugh at or applaud Creighton Fraker, a 28-year-old from Queens, N.Y.
First off, I love the fact that the onscreen description under his name was "starving artist." Creighton, who busks in crazy sparkly sunglasses in New York, sang a song he wrote on the nine-hour bus ride to Pittsburgh (sample lyric: "Randy Jackson you've been part of the action for 11 whole seasons now"). He followed that up with the Jackson 5's "Who's Lovin' You" when Steven requested a real song.
He can sing, a little too theatrically for my taste, but his "weird kind of wild crazy voice" won over the judges, who engaged in more competitive "yes"ing (from a million to two million to three gazillion per cent this time).
From crazy to cute, Eben Franckewitz, 15, of Milford, Ohio, was next. He may look like Justin Bieber (and really, isn't that what people say about any decent-looking, slight teenager with floppy hair?), but he reminded me of another youngster with a pure, clear voice: Jacee Badeaux. Eben seems like a sweet, well-mannered, parents' dream of a kid. We'll see how he holds up in the pressure-cooker of Hollywood.
Speaking of pressure, Travis Orlando was back. It didn't sound like circumstances had improved much for the Bronx teenager, who'd been living in a shelter with his family last season after his dad got sick and they lost their home. Travis was back in a shelter with his father and twin brother after his mother walked out on them and they were evicted from their apartment. Travis, who's 17 and unemployed, has a nice voice, but there was no conviction in his performance of "Isn't She Lovely." After a tearful plea, the judges put him through to Hollywood with the warning that he has to grow, but I think Travis could be in for more disappointment.
As for Erika Van Pelt, 25, a DJ and wedding singer from South Kingstown, R.I., I thought there were too many flourishes in her version of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," perhaps more appropriate for the banquet hall than the Idol stage.
The one unsuccessful contestant we saw was Shane Bruce, a 19-year-old who's followed his grandfather and father into the coal mines of Moundsville, W. Va. He doesn't have a bad voice, but he referred to the iconic "Hallelujah" as just a song from Shrek and then did a substandard version with no apparent awareness of the achingly beautiful versions that have come before. Steven suggested that singing in the mine might be as good as it gets for Shane, but JLo and Randy encouraged him to come back next year.
The producers saved one of the best for last: a double whammy of a powerful voice and an appropriately dramatic back story.
Hallie Day is a statuesque blond stunner who went off the rails after trying to make it with the girl group Plum Crazy as a 15-year-old in New York City (I'm guessing Plum Crazy never got up to much since the only band I can find online with that name has older men in it).
Addiction, a less than triumphant return to Baltimore, Md., and a suicide attempt followed. Hallie, now 24, is a waitress and married to the man she says saved her life.
Appropriately, she sang "I Will Survive," managed to keep it cheese-free and got raves from the judges.
"I can see you stealing the show," said Jennifer.
Hallie was one of 38 who got golden tickets in Pittsburgh (37 singers and one planker, I presume).
Next stop on the audition tour is San Diego, with a special Sunday airing at 10 p.m. on CTV. Be forewarned, the time might not be exact since it follows a football game (an important game apparently, but I don't do football, so I can't really say.)
I'll be watching and recapping and, as always, I invite your comments here, on Twitter @realityeo or on my Facebook page.
(The photos of Heejun, Samantha and Patty, Eben and Hallie are by Michael Becker for Fox.)