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Pittsburgh seemed primed for an Idol audition gag fest on the level of William Hung and his seminal “She Bangs” cover. After all, it’s a city with its own language and black and yellow sports legacies, as Ryan Seacrest and one portly NFL fan yelling “Pittsburgh!” reminded us. But sadly, that’s as wacky as the city of champions got, unless you count the American Idol “Judges Jam” with Randy Jackson on guitar, Steven Tyler on vocals and Jennifer Lopez arriving late and looking like she never gave birth to twins.
Still, when we first viewed the video package for Flushing, New York’s, HeeJun Han, who stared blankly into the camera robotically repeating “I don’t know” to questions he’s asked and shaking his hands in an attempt to calm his nerves, the Hungian moment seemed imminent. Shocker: Han’s not half bad, and came off more like the Asian version of Michael Bolton as he crooned Laura Branigan’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?” Lopez was definitely feeling it, hardly able to contain her excitement. Jackson was seriously impressed, even shocked. Tyler agreed, offering that Han could be an American Idol. In season 11’s Susan Boyle-like moment, Han’s going to Hollywood.
Up next was Reed Grimm from Wisconsin. Like the Osmonds, he’s been on stage with his family since the age of two. Adding to his no doubt quirky personality, he made the curious decision to sing the theme song from Family Matters, which may be an Idol first. And while his voice has come a long way since his toddler days, Grimme’s Steve Urkel-like moves? Not so much. Still, he gets plenty of complements from the judges — Tyler called the audition “genius” and uttered his first “beautiful” of the night. Lopez, for her part, gave him “a zillion percent yes.”
The Golden tickets were flying out the door by this point. We got a glimpse of Aaron Marcellus, from Teaneck, NJ, whose screen time may have been cut short because he got through to the final 40 last year as Aaron Sanders. Lopez didn’t seem to remember him, though.
Finally, we got an odd moment with the Pittsburgh planker. That would be Patricia Bell, who held the yoga pose-turned internet sensation while her sister Samantha Novacek sang Faith Hill’s “Like We Never Loved at All” for the judges. While a neat visual, it needs to be said: seriously? But there was no denying Bell’s voice, which Tyler described as “Sweet, Clever, Great notes.” Jackson compared her to Hill and Karen Carpenter, and she too sailed through to Hollywood. Cue: “Down on the Floor.”
Meet: Creighton Fraker from Queens, NY: a street musician who thinks he’s Elton John, complete with Captain Fantastic glasses and a touch of sass. Or shall we say, chutzpah. This is the kind of guy who auditioned with a song he rode on the nine-hour bus ride from New York City. While no “Pants on the Ground,” it worked, and with Lopez jumping on the Justin Timberlake comparisons, Fraker seemed a fait accompli. Still, the judges asked for another song, just to make sure he wasn’t all gimmick. Fraker again delivered with Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You?” Tyler’s critique? “You are beautiful.” Randy loved Fraker’s “weird, crazy voice,” and all three sent him through with a coveted golden ticket.
Like X Factor, the 15-year-olds have infiltrated Idol. The latest Justin Bieber wannabe? Eben Francekwitz from Ohio, who we get to follow from his house to the car to the audition. Singing the classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” all three judges are wowed and unilaterally agree that the kid has a God-given gift. Cue: Bieber’s “Baby.” What’s next? A Francekwitz-Drew Ryniewicz duet?
More Idol repeats were in store for episode 2 as Travis Orlando from the Bronx returned for a second shot. On season 10, he fought for a Golden Ticket with Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and this year, he hopes to be Lopez’s Stefano Langone. Indeed, she believes Travis is stronger than last year, but he’s still not all the way there. His saving grace? A hard luck story. After dropping out of High School and suffering through his mom’s abandonment, his family was evicted from their apartment and moved into a shelter. With Travis’ dad is in dialysis, and his brother is in college, his best friend is all he has, and while the judges have reservations, they put him through to the next round.
Wedding singers get a bad wrap and according to hopeful Erika Van Pelt, a mobile DJ-singer from Rhode Island, Adam Sandler is to blame. But her singing is no joke as she offers a soulful version of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” that has Tyler singing along. No surprise here, she’s off to Hollywood.
After a pointless montage of Tyler goofing off, we meet Shane Bruce, an 18-year-old coal miner from West Virginia who kind of looks like Shia Laboeuf. How the show missed an opportunity to play Devo’s “Working in a Coal Mine” during his video segment is beyond me, especially after an unexpected snippet by The Doves, but the kid can sing. Although he had a sweet tone — and we will forgive him for identifying Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a song from Shrek — his nerves apparently got the best of him, and the judges told him he wasn’t quite ready. Bruce was disappointed in the outcome, as was this Idol viewer. Can’t we have a do-over? I’d rather see this kid again than Jessica Whitley from the Savannah auditions. Don’t worry Shane, there’s always X Factor.
After a parade of rejections came the final Pittsburgh auditioner, Hallie Day from Baltimore, Maryland, and another sad story was upon us: The newlywed waitress had a failed attempt at pop stardom in New York, eventually becoming an addict and even attempting suicide. But here she was, long after hitting rock bottom, on the Idol stage declaring, “I Will Survive.” Calculated? Perhaps, but Steven wanted a second song– not because the first didn’t make the cut, but just to hear her sing some more. It was a sweet sentiment and while some may find Day’s powerful, emotive delivery a tad overwrought, let’s see what she does in Hollywood. I, for one, am hoping for the best.
In the end, some 38 gold tickets were handed out — a paltry sum considering some auditions draw 10,000 people, but this year Idol’s early rounds seem much more focused on quality not quantity.
Up next: a special Sunday night episode that brings the show to San Diego – home turf of one Adam Lambert. But first: who did you like of the Pittsburgh hopefuls, and do you miss the trainwreck auditions?
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