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'American Idol' Top 12 Guys Offer A Promising Start, But It's Still All About Steven Tyler

Your front-row seat to Season 10's Top 12 guys from inside the 'Idol'-dome.

idol brett loewenstern top 24
Michael Becker / FOX
Brett Loewenstern

Season 10’s first show with a studio audience isn’t exactly live. To work out the Top 24 kinks a little while before the Top 12 (or is it 13? Or maybe 15?) kicks into gear, the producers tape these early episodes without the usual time constraints or production pressures. There’s still a schedule to keep, but it’s not as unwavering as next week’s episodes, when the competition really gets going.

Of course, this was no ordinary episode. For most everyone who walked into the studio on Friday, Feb. 25 was greeted with a brand spanking new set. The vibe: theater in the round. A circular stage with the audience positioned on all sides -- behind the giant American Idol logo in the back, tucked on the side among four opera box-like balconies, two of which were used by the contestants -- girls up above, guys down below – and the other two which seemed well-suited to VIPs.

The show was supposed to start taping at 5:00pm, but by 5:30, not a note had been sung. Instead, we got to hear the hum of a drill as it fastened the judges’ microphones to the table. It is television, after all.

With that in mind, what came next were more made-for-TV-moments, or “beauty shots,” as each of the top 12 guys stood at the vortex of 18 white-hot spotlights. Another first for most of us sitting patiently in our seats: seeing the dozen hopefuls live and in person. Snap judgment? James Durbin towers over his fellow finalists, Stefano Langone has a more vocal fanbase than one might have thought and, no surprise here, Brett Loewenstern is a bouncy ball of redheaded energy that you can’t not love.

Following the parade of male hopefuls, some 90 minutes after arriving at CBS Television City’s Stage 36, the show was finally ready to start. Ryan Seacrest made his entrance and took a look around paying special mind to the upper rafters behind the stage, whose only view of the evening’s ceremonies was a giant LED screen across the way. “Turn on the big screen, PLEASE,” the more unfortunate pleaded. It would come soon enough.

Despite the big set changes, the show’s opener was pretty much the same as last year. After the 12 guys came out to greet the crowd, so did the judges, with Jennifer Lopez stepping carefully in 10 inch Louboutins, Steven Tyler grinning gingerly and Randy Jackson strutting out front with authority -- all roles the three would replicate in their judging styles. The fellas, which stage manager Debbie Williams had earlier remarked “this is a cute group this year,” looked equally wide-eyed to be in the presence of several hundred cheering Idol fans. Some, like favorites Brett, Paul McDonald, Clint Jun Gamboa and Casey Abrams, jumped in place to shake off their nerves or pent up energy, others took a softer approach and headed straight for the silver stools, another holdover from Idols past.

“I’m ready,” said Jennifer after some banter with Ryan about the size of her earrings. “They’re not what you think they are -- they’re more!” Steven Tyler’s offhand comments were a bigger concern, as both exec producer Nigel Lythgoe and Ryan himself expected a flurry of F words (they would not be disappointed). But first, Tyler had to fix the fringe on his leather jacket to ensure it hungeth just so. His shoes were pretty rock-n-roll, too: purple and glittered.

Quickly, the game plan was explained. The Top 24 had their pick of any song. The five highest vote-getters from Tuesday and Wednesday would advance to the Top… whatever. The rest will be chosen in a wild card round.

First up: Clint Jun Gamboa doing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition, “a song that’s gotten heavy rotation on the Idol stage over the last nine years, even as recently as Season 9 when Siobhan Magnus slayed it during a Top 11 performance. Clint must have been taking notes because his version treaded awfully close to Magnus territory, which wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, he, like Siobhan, has a vocal sweet spot that’s hard to deny. His: heavier on the vibrato than her wail. Still, from up above in section G, it sounded like he fell into that screamy trap that Idol hopefuls often encounter, but the judges didn’t notice. Said Steven: “No karaoke singer in the world has that kind of vocal talent.”

Such comments might have had your ordinary contender quaking in his boots, but not Jovany Barreto who took on Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” without trepidation. The former port worker’s voice can best be described as soaring, which is one reason Steven Tyler remarked, “Holy shipyard!” For her part, Jennifer was just grateful that the home viewers get to see what she’s been excited about all along. Randy’s take: “It was just OK.”

In case you were worried there would be no more boos, fear not! Randy is getting more than his share. Hey, after nine years of listening to singers who feel entitled, you’d be harshing, too. And the next contestant wasn’t any more satisfying. Jordan Dorsey, wearing a top that made him look like he just jumped out of Justin Bieber’s 3D movie opted to try Usher’s “O.M.G.” And Oh my, it wasn’t good. Said Jennifer ever so diplomatically: “I’m not sure that’s who you really are.” Randy’s spin: “It’s not a singer’s song.” All would have preferred the Nat King Cole vibe of his previous auditions. So why did he choose that song? “It was offered to me and I went along with it,” said Jordan, prompting this Idol worshiper to wonder: is this part of the show’s new directive to help the kids choose the songs?

After a commercial break, during which Steven grooved to the beat of “Best of My Love” and Nigel explained to the audience that it’s OK to boo – the louder the better! – it’s Tim Halperin’s turn at the microphone. No relation to the author, though yours truly feels inclined to point out that Tim, like all of the Top 12 guys, sang without an instrument and it did not serve him well. I have a feeling that for production’s sake, the producers discouraged all from playing guitar or keyboards. In Tim’s case, and it’s too bad he didn’t fight for it, as is the Halperin way. With that preamble out of the way, he chose the Rob Thomas solo number “Streetcorner Symphony (Come On Over)” and delivered a perfectly on-point rendition, which was the problem, too: If I wanted to hear Rob Thomas, I’d walk pop on my iPod containing every song he’s every recorded.

Moving on to Brett Loewenstern -- whose fans shall from here forward be known as Brettheads -- he pulled out what was undoubtedly the most entertaining performance of the night, choosing The Doors’ classic “Light My Fire” but giving it a salsa, lounge-like twist. He knocked the microphone stand over, flung his hair around no less than 14 times as the camera literally chased him around the stage, proving that he’s quite the showman. As for Brett’s vocals: they had a nice Adam Levine-like tone and there’s no denying: the boy can sing. Jennifer had the one-liner for this one, telling Brett that was “more hair tossing than me and Beyonce!” Randy had a compliment, too: “You’re fun and bold.”

Speaking of bold, James Durbin was up next, and judging by the scarf dangling from his back pocket, he was up to no good as well. Perhaps hoping to get those Adam Lambert comparisons out of the way, he chose a song one never would imagine on Idol: Judas Priest’s “Got Another Thing Coming.” It was an apt choice considering he took the performance to 11 and wowed the room, more than half of which gave Durbin a standing ovation. And with that came Steven’s first F bomb of the night: “That was f---ing crazy good!” Jennifer called James “organic and real,” while Randy declared, “This is how we do it!” But it would be Ryan who delivers the zinger of the night: “Clay Aiken never did that one?”

Back to more typical Idol fare, Robbie Rosen delivered Sarah McLachlan’s “Arms of an Angel” with good inflection and confidence. He didn’t quite take it to synagogue, but came close. Anyway, Steven loved it. He called Robbie’s performance “Beautiful,” while Jennifer said she liked it better than the original. Randy on the other hand, didn’t think it was a great performance and threw out his first “pitchy” critique of the season.

Next up was another crowd favorite: Scotty McCreery, who had one fellow Idol blogger (she shall remain nameless) swooning in her seat. Scotty’s take on “Letters from Home” by John Michael Montgomery featured all the how-low-can-you-go tenderness that his voice naturally emotes, but again, it was the showmanship that really impressed. He may be young, but there was a maturity to Scotty’s performance that’s sure to take him far in this competition. Jennifer was, in a word, moved, telling the North Carolina native, “You were born to sing country music.” Randy went one step further, calling Scotty a “throwback country guy” who’s “not looking for a crossover.” Hallelujah to that.

Stefano Langone brought it back to the present with Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are,” but like all contestants, he’s learning to sing along with the Ray Chew Live band, which can sometimes be a little tricky. And so it seemed that Stefano was slightly ahead of his accompaniment, though he did catch up eventually. Jennifer called Stefano a “beast,” while Randy noted he was “a little sharp but it doesn’t matter -- kid could be on the radio right now!” To better his chances, Stefano turned on the charm, dedicating the performance “to all the ladies out there.”

Getting ever closer to the pimp spot, which is, of course, the last performance of the night – the one that rings in your head well past 10pm, perhaps even into the next morning, Paul McDonald took the stage in an all black Johnny Cash-inspired ensemble. He chose Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae” and delivered as if he’d been singing it his entire life. Casually strutting across the stage, the seasoned musician proved just that: he knows how to work a microphone and an audience, qualities that should carry him straight through to the next round, even if he does lean towards the unconventional. Perhaps Randy said it best: “I like that Idol can embrace this kind of singer.”

In the second to last slot came Jacob Lusk, who offered few surprises in terms of song choice (“A House Is Not a Home” -- again), delivery (he took it to church big time) or judges’ reaction. Indeed, Steven likened the performance to a religious experience -- “Divine intervention brought you to us,” he said -- while Jennifer straight up compared Jacob to the song’s originator Luther Vandross, a sentiment shared by Randy, who said, “Luther would be so proud. I don’t think there’s anything you can’t sing.”

Lastly, Casey Abrams. Clearly, everyone in the room had heard about his hospitalization so anticipation was at a fever pitch, even after more than three hours in the not-so-comfortable Idol studio chairs. And to his credit, Casey did not disappoint. Singing a soulful “I Put A Spell On You” and directing most of his gaze to a gaggle of pretty ladies seated to the left of Randy, the judges were feeling it, the audience was on its feet, and while the cheesy graphics didn’t do Casey any justice, he brought that song home. After a standing ovation, Jennifer cooed, “Casey, you’re sexy… You took it and at it all up... Casey wants it bad.” Even in his wildest fantasies, this bearded camp counselor never could have imagined such words coming out of Jennifer Lopez’s mouth and directed at him. But such is the beauty of Idol: the show really does make dreams come true. As for his health? Ryan asked and Casey answered that his “stomach just wasn’t in the right place.” And with that admission, Ryan stepped a few feet away to keep his distance.

The show wrapped only after a couple of reshoots -- the judges’ entrance and Jovany’s performance, and then it was out to the rain for the hundreds of Idol fans no doubt grappling with an all-too-common dilemma: who to vote for when only five will survive?