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MAR
7
2 YEARS

'American Idol' Recap: Jessica Sanchez Nails Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' (Video)

Phillip Phillips, Skylar Laine and Joshua Ledet also shined on Wednesday's performance night. Shannon Magrane did not.

Jessica Sanchez

Is it too soon to crown Jessica Sanchez this year's American Idol winner?

Based on her jaw-dropping performance Wednesday night, it's a wonder producers don't call the whole thing off. Then again, in next week's round, the powerhouse singer could just as soon stumble and lose momentum with a bad song choice.

But Sanchez got her hands on the Whitney Houston gem "I Will Always Love You," and actually did justice to the late music legend, whose repertoire is considered untouchable even for the most seasoned singers, let alone karaoke novices.

Clad in a simple blue column gown, the 16-year-old from San Diego belted the classic ballad, weaving in Whitney-esque touches of nuance that brought tears to Jennifer Lopez's eyes. (And we thought only Jeremy Rosado had that special gift.)

STORY: 'American Idol' Anonymous: A Former Finalist (Maybe Winner?) Explains What's Wrong With the Show

"You may be the one," intoned Steven Tyler. When asked by Ryan Seacrest to name his favorite performers of the night, the judge later responded: "My two favorite standouts would have to be Jessica Sanchez and Jessica Sanchez."

Point, taken.

Not to ignore the other Top 13 contenders who performed on Wednesday's show. Show-stoppers included Joshua Ledet, Phillip Phillips and Skylar Laine, to name a few. In a new twist, this week's format is a battle of the sexes: on Thursday's results show, the guy and girl with the lowest number of votes will be at the mercy of judges Lopez, Tyler and Randy Jackson. They have the final word on which hopeful gets the boot -- and who will stick around for another shot at instant stardom.

And so the guys sang for their 16th minute using Stevie Wonder's songbook, while the girls paid tribute to Houston. Mary J. Blige was on hand to help mentor Jimmy Iovine, aka "The New Simon," steer contestants toward the path of Not Messing Up.

PHOTOS: 'American Idol' Season 11 Top 13 Finalists

Here's a sampling of feedback for finalists who are not Jessica Sanchez, Idol's season 11 champ (too soon):

Joshua Ledet: The 19-year-old Louisiana showman -- dubbed "Mantasia" by the Idol-verse -- performed Wonder's "I Wish" alongside a backup brass band that played off his infectious energy and all-around vocal excellence. It was a symbiotic show of rhythm that captivated the judges' panel. Jackson responded: "Mary was right on: if you feel the beat and rock like that, you can do ANYTHING."

Elise Testone: In a word, Testone's take on Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight" was "meh." The husky-voiced singer from South Carolina might want to start packing her bags following criticism of her song choice (Iovine directed her to change it, actually) and her visible discomfort on stage. "I don't think this was your best," quoth J-Lo. "There (were) timing issues. You just felt a little unsure."

Jermaine Jones: The gentle New Jersey giant who really, really loves his mom pulled off a silky-smooth, capable cover of "Knocks Me Off My Feet." Praised Tyler: "That song fits you like an Armani suit." Meanwhile, Jackson advised the jittery Jones to relax a bit "because you've got it, man." Sidenote: the wide camera shot of Jones standing next to Seacrest was certainly an amusing sight to behold but would be even funnier if Jones dumped the ashes of "Kim Jong-Il" on the host's suit (probably Armani).

VIDEO: Top 13 Finalists Red Carpet Interviews

Erika Van Pelt: This season's answer to Kelly Clarkson impressed with her soulful cover of "I Believe in You and Me." In a testament to the power of Van Pelt's stage presence, Lopez gushed: "I had goosies before you even (started singing)." But she also advised the 26-year-old Rhode Islander to let loose a bit and take a risk. Van Pelt tends to play it safe, rather than go all out, a la Clarkson, but she's a favorite of Iovine, who's got a keen eye for commercial talent in the sense of "I Am A Label Executive, And I Know What Sells." She's likable and kind of tough, with a hint of edge and those red streaks in her hair.

Colton Dixon: Season-10 finalist James Durbin was not a fan of Dixon's piano-jumping hijinks last episode, accusing him of cribbing Durbin's stage act. Our reaction: whatever, James Durbin. But we can see his point about the singer's seemingly faux image. Namely: who is the real Colton Dixon? Is he the indie-rock guy who auditioned last season, or the skunk-haired emo rocker we see today? Did he shave a mohawk as a means to set himself apart and craft a self-styled persona as Adam Lambert's "Edgy" Heir Apparent? (Perhaps brand-new Idol image consultant Tommy Hilfiger can help him find a style that matches his true identity, whatever that is!). Alas, the judges ate his schtick up. "You slayed it in the end. ... Well done," said Jackson, following Dixon's arguably overwrought take on "Lately."

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Shannon Magrane: The sunny 16-year-old from Florida is hyper-talented, but hit a rare low note with her performance of "I Have Nothing," which also happens to be our favorite Houston song ever of all time. And it should have been the perfect tune for Magrane: like Houston, she's a mezzo-soprano with a pop-gospel vibe. But stage fright did her in and she spiraled downward after a strong start. "I think your nerves got the best of you. ... You kinda crashed and burned in the turnaround," said Tyler, who later placed Magrane among Wednesday's worst-performing would-be Idol winners. (All the more frustrating for Magrane, she wowed Blige and Iovine during rehearsals.)

DeAndre Brackensick: The Milli Vanilli throwback pulled his long, curly locks into a ponytail for a rousing, reggae-tinged rendition of "Master Blaster." Brackensick, 17, has swagger beyond his years and can sometimes give off a cheesy, early '90s vibe on slower songs. But he showed a more playful side Wednesday, channeling Wonder's joy and rhythmic bravado, resulting in unanimous praise from the judges. "We didn't want it to stop. That's how good it was," declared Jackson, while Tyler -- ever the Idol wordsmith -- noted the singer's "Jamaican patois."

Skylar Laine: Her "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" gave Blige goosebumps, or "goosies," as J-Lo would call them. The 18-year-old Reba McIntire soundalike from Brandon, Mo., exudes the poise and confidence of a seasoned professional. Laine is like Sanchez in that way, and if Lopez's offhand prediction turns out to be true, perhaps there will be a girl-versus-girl showdown come May, thereby breaking the somewhat disappointing streak of Mediocre Cute Boy Winners who wink at the camera and steal all the lady votes from the ladies.

Heejun Han: The Queens native is no doubt the funniest Idol finalist in years, since Sanjaya Malakar turned tone-deaf singing into performance art. But unlike Malakar, Han carries a tune as well as he can draw laughs. The 22-year-old sang "All in Love is Fair," and it was all kind of slow and plodding and nice (read: just OK) but the judges liked it. Han, meanwhile, appeared to hold a half-joking grudge against Iovine for declaring last week that the show needs a star vocalist, not a comedian. In a ha-ha moment, Han signed an autograph for Blige, noting: "Mary I love you more than Jimmy."

Jeremy Rosado: Every time Rosado, 19, croons all velvety-and-R&B-like, Lopez looks as if she's on the verge of sobbing. The Florida teddy bear and Mr. Congeniality of the competition has swept Lopez off her stilettos: he's her favorite, and she's not afraid to let everyone know. He was her wild card pick, too. Which begs the question: Rosado's "Ribbon In the Sky" melted Lopez' heart, but is he good enough to go all the way? The jury's still out on that.

Hollie Cavanagh: All hail the second coming of Christina Aguilera. The Texas belter is a match for Xtina in the vocals department, consistently wowing with professional-level effortlessness and control. And so it came as no surprise when Cavanagh achieved soaring results on "All the Man That I Need," leading Lopez to wager, "We might have a sing-off between two girls in the final."

Phillip Phillips: The only thing that irks us about the Georgia rocker is his redundant moniker (there is NO NEED for two "Phillips," right?). Anyway, back to the music. The gravelly-voiced Phillips, who's been compared to Dave Matthews, had a decidedly Dave-ish interpretation of "Superstition." The 21-year-old sported a casual gray shirt as if to give off an "I don't care" vibe but played to win, thanks to his rasping, spirited delivery, crowd-pleasing acoustic guitar and mini-jam session with a pair of guitarists accompanying him on the song.

"I love Phillip because he gets lost in the music. There's no ending for him," said Blige in rehearsal footage.

Copy that for Jackson. "You drive your own car in your own lane and I love it," he said, while Phillips grinned sheepishly.

Tell us, Idol-Worshippers: is 2012 the Season of Sanchez, or will yet another singer-songwriter-type dude prevail in the finale? Why is Lopez so obsessed with Rosado? Who would you like to see get the boot?

Twitter: @ErinLCarlson

Email: erin.carlson@thr.com