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'American Idol' Makes First Cuts in Sudden Death Rounds

The judges show "no mercy" as the first five semifinalists are sent home in Las Vegas.

American Idol Angela Miller - H 2013
Michael Becker/Fox
Angela Miller

For the first time ever, American Idol is hosting “sudden death” rounds in Las Vegas, where the remaining semifinalists get to perform in front of a live audience.

For the next two weeks, the remaining 40 singers will be whittled down to 20, and the judges aren’t messing around.

“One song, one choice, no mercy,” said Ryan Seacrest as the singers readied themselves to take the stage at The Mirage in Las Vegas.

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With the show finally settling into a live format, the biggest revelation was not the contestants but the on-point critiques of Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Randy Jackson and Nicki Minaj.

With Minaj already engaging with the live audience (“prepare to boo again”), Carey giving succinct vocal lessons (“Be more dynamic in the verses”), Urban cautioning contestants against going overboard in their performances (“It was confusing”) and Jackson taking the role of both cheerleader and grumpy old man (“There is nothing redeemable about that.”), the show was remarkably enjoyable to watch.

In other words, the panel brought their A game to Vegas, but which singers did?

A breakdown of the five remaining vocalists:

Angela Miller: She already guaranteed herself a spot in the finals in Hollywood with her original song “Set Me Free,” but could she repeat that success in Las Vegas? Miller opted to come out from behind the piano and stand center stage as she performed “Nobody’s Perfect” by Jessie J. The Massachusetts native already looks like a professional, and Minaj told her that she is “already a contender” but warned her not to force her performance. “I love you Angie, but you know nothing is going to compare to your original performance.” Carey told her that she “needs to keep writing.” Jackson called her “the real deal.”

Tenna Torres: Torres survived the cut despite a haircut that added 15 years to the 28-year-old singer’s appearance. Her Cirque du Soleil makeup didn’t help either. However, the New York native vocally delivered on a very difficult song: “Incompatible” by Natasha Bedingfield. It seems her training at Camp Mariah served her well, as all four judges enjoyed her torch song performance. “Why do you look so sad?” asked Minaj as she praised her tone, comparing it to '80s R&B singers. However, she said, “lose the hair.” Carey was proud of how Torres delivered the emotion: “This was all you.” Jackson was all celebratory, declaring “this was the start of the night!”

Kree Harrison: She certainly doesn’t have the look of an Idol, but she has something else: authentic and effortless vocals. Until last week, Harrison was a faceless demo singer in Nashville, but all that changed after she tore through Grace Potter’s “Stars” last week. Wednesday night was no different. Dressed simply in an oversized blouse and jeans, her deliverance of “Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin (also covered by Kelly Clarkson and season nine runner-up Crystal Bowersox) was cause to make the competition “very afraid,” according to Minaj. Urban was overcome with elation, exclaiming, “Ah, Kree! Kree! You are such a natural-born singer, and it's so beautiful to watch you sing, too. You don't over-try; you don't have any desperation in the way you sing.” “You make love to the song,” said Minaj, who dubbed Harrison “sexy.” Jackson called her a “natural-born singer,” and Carey enjoyed how she “got lost in the song.”

Adriana Latonio: Is it too soon to demand a duet between this season’s Filipino powerhouse with last season’s runner-up, Jessica Sanchez, for the finale? The petite Alaskan singer could probably see Hollywood from her house. Her old-school performance of “Ain't No Way” by Aretha Franklin impressed Carey, who could be seen singing along during the whole song. “It was really nice,” she said. “A+.” Minaj, who was scribbling notes furiously throughout the show, read back her impressions: “"Little tiny thing but she commands the stage from the second she walks out." Urban exclaimed, “Now the night has started!”

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Amber Holcomb: Her performance of “My Funny Valentine” came a week too late, but it was the perfect song choice for the 18-year-old assistant teacher who was cut in Vegas last year and looking to “come harder.” Did she ever. The Texas teen looked terrific, with a bright red skirt and dark top and “Legs for days, pretty little dimples,” quoth Minaj. Her vocals were strong and sharp, with a big note at the end that nearly got away from her, but Urban loved it anyway. “Why do you have to make it hard for everyone else?” he asked. Minaj was worried that her “inner shine” wasn’t coming through the television, and Carey wanted to “smack” Holcomb. "I can't wait for you to get in the studio and make a record."

And we said goodbye to:

Jenny Beth Willis: I felt bad for her. Not only had we never seen her before, but when we did see her she went first (never a good thing) and was wearing a prom dress from the Grand Ole Opry, circa 1986. It didn’t help that she was lackluster on “Heaven, the Heartache and the Power of Love,” by Trisha Yearwood. The whole song felt flat, and Minaj even said it only came alive at the end when she flashed her “beautiful smile.” Jackson felt she wasn’t in sync with the band, and Carey gave a direct, Berklee School of Music-level critique: “I love that you took it low, in contrast to the last note, which was a stone winner.” Carey needs to keep this up all season. We all have much to learn from her.

Brandy Hotard: This was another singer I don’t remember from auditions, and that’s too bad. Her decision to perform “Anymore” by Travis Tritt was brave, considering women don’t usually choose to sing it. However, Hotard’s decision to smile through its sad lyrics sucked all of the emotion out of the piece, leaving the judges disappointed. Urban sensed “an emotional connection inconsistency. It's a pretty heartbreaking, and there were times when you seemed like you were quite happy about it.” Minaj wasn’t as nice, calling it a “pageant delivery.”  “You are not coming out here to smile at the judges,” she said. Carey tried to school Hotard in what she did wrong: "When you open up your voice in your mid-register. … It's a million-dollar moment.”

Shubha Vedula: This was a major disappointment, since she was so much fun in Hollywood. First, the 17-year-old sat at the piano, delivering what seemed to be a slower version of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” with a dash of sitar. So far, so interesting. She livened things up midway through the song, which was a welcome change from the maudlin selections performed all night. However, it all went south in a Sanjaya-like moment that Minaj said almost felt ”comical” -- like a “mash-up of Christina Aguilera and the 'Gangnam Style' guy.” Now THAT was comedy. Urban found the whole thing “confusing,” and Jackson and Carey would have preferred she stayed at the piano.

Kamaria Ousley: Ouch. Quite easily the worst performance of the night was Ousley’s rendering of Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All.” Urban summed it up best when he said he was not “a big fan of unnecessary theatrics. … I don’t know a thing about you, babe, and I’d like to.” Minaj wondered where Ousley’s weird twang came from, since they had never heard it before, but said she loved her outfit. Carey complimented the wardrobe too, specifically the shoes, but Jackson flat-out hated it. “This was your worst performance,” he said, which is laughable because this was the first performance I ever saw her give.

Isabelle: Now she had a last name in auditions, right? She also had a great story of losing 200 pounds and persevering and overcoming obstacles. Her selection of “God Bless The Child,” however, didn’t convey that message quite the way she had hoped, and Jackson called her out for a old-fashioned performance. She promised she would come back with something contemporary next time, but it was not to be.

So there are the first cuts, Idol Worshippers! Did you agree with the choices, or was it pretty obvious? And how about the judges? Who is your favorite?

Twitter: Idol_Worship