'American Idol': Haley Reinhart, Stefano Langone Nail Elton John Classics
"It's an insane amount of pressure for these guys to endure," Ryan Seacrest said about the Top 11 contestants in season 10 at the beginning of the two-hour "American Idol" episode tonight (Mar. 30). The host couldn't have been more right: the singers stepped onto the "Idol" stage tonight knowing that two of them would be departing tomorrow night, and that the judges were out of saves from now on. And after Casey Abrams, the perennial fan and judge favorite, hung onto his spot in the competition by the skin of his beard last week, no contestant could have felt safe six days later.
Those high stakes obviously pushed the contestants in this Elton John-themed episode, and although last week's Motown showdown was delightful fun, the performances on tonight's "American Idol" felt more immediate, and often more rewarding. Some contestants (Naima, James) took dicey risks while reinterpreting Sir Elton's classics, while others (Stefano, and especially Haley) seemed to establish their stage identities -- hopefully for them, before it is too late.
7. James Durbin
Song: "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting"
Steven said: "You got a really good rock voice man, and you go where no man can go. Just don't wear out your welcome."
Jennifer said: "When you're up there, I forget that it's a competition show. I think I'm at a show, watching you do your song. It's crazy."
Randy said: "I really felt like you were having a good time -- the fire, the piano, you coming out here with us, playing up there with the crowd. Dude, that was a great, great, great performance."
We say: Wild James is at it again, this time setting a piano on fire, running through the crowd to collect high-fives, and throwing mic stands like there's no tomorrow. Lost underneath the showmanship, however, is a vocal performance that started disappointingly and ended triumphantly, with the singer standing center stage and attacking the chorus. And perhaps that's James' biggest problem with these types of performances: as fun as it is to see James live out his rock-and-roll dreams, the peripheral entertainment distracts a singer who needs to improve his craft, like all of his fellow contestants. I know that James is an awesome stage presence, but I'm still not sure that he's an awesome singer.
8. Thia Megia
Steven said: "I think that when you find the right song, the voice appears, right? And that's what happened tonight."
Jennifer said: "This was very well-suited for your voice, the melody was. I think this was a beautiful moment for you."
Randy said: "There were a couple little pitch issues here and there, but the other thing that I didn't like was that it was still once again very safe."
We say: Minutes after James went all-out on "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," Thia appropriately toned things down with "Daniel." Drawing upon an emotional experience involving the distance separating her from her older brother, the singer sounded comfortable singing the stripped-down ballad and earned the appreciation of Steven and Jennifer. Randy, however, thought that Thia needed to stretch a little more to make a bigger impact, and while "Daniel" sounded lovely, I can't help but agree. In a night full of gorgeous balladry, Thia unfortunately felt lost in the shuffle.
9. Casey Abrams
Song: "Your Song"
Steven said: "If not but for the last two notes of that song, if that's the only two songs you sang, that would have gotten a standing ovation."
Jennifer said: "With the character in your voice, with the choices that you made in that song... it was just very Casey."
Randy said: "Hearing you sing but not lose all of who the Casey is that makes you different was absolutely brilliant."
We say: Maybe it was the subdued song choice. Maybe it was the anticipation of seeing him follow a breathtaking moment in "Idol" history last week. Maybe it was just the tragically trimmed beard. But Casey's performance, which should have been a righteous "I'm still here!" proclamation, fell flat near the end of the show. The singer tamed his infamous growl and kept his personality in check, and while he let loose a little bit at the end of "Your Song," the final notes proved too little, too late. Tellingly, the judges' comments focused more on the good feeling they had been given by saving him last week and less on tonight's performance. The judges correctly saved Casey, but tonight was far from a resounding affirmation of that decision.
10. Naima Adedapo
Song: "I'm Still Standing"
Steven said: "I'm gonna say it: good for you for picking a song that fits you."
Jennifer said: "I love you, and I believe that you're supposed to still be standing in this competition, and I love your reggae swag. I'm not sure that this song was suited for that."
Randy said: "I love reggae, but it kinda came off kinda corny, and you're not corny."
We say: Naima knows that she's far from the odds-on favorite to make the "Idol" finals, or even survive this week's double elimination. It makes sense, then, that she would shake up her style with a blast of reggae injected into a song about unlikely survival. Singing "I'm Still Standing" as a reggae tune, complete with a laid-back arrangement and the Jamaican flag colors sprinkled across her outfit, was great in theory, but the execution unfortunately felt hollow. With more time in the competition, Naima could pull off a radical idea like this, but she didn't seem to be ready for it this week.
11. Paul McDonald
Song: "Rocket Man"
Steven said: "So I gotta ask -- You been watering that suit?"
Jennifer said: "I wonder if you're holding back a little bit, that there's a little bit more to your voice than even you know."
Randy said: "There were a couple things that were a little pitchy... but when you get into that tender zone, with that quiet, soft voice, it's very infectious."
We say: If only Paul's performance tonight was as spectacular as that rose-covered white suit continues to be. Paul began singing "Rocket Man" as a dreamy, understated love song, but couldn't quite muster the jaw-dropping vocal quality needed for the song's chorus. The judges wondered aloud if Paul was "holding back" something -- never a great question to be asked, especially after tackling a song that requires rapturous force. The deeper problem is that, after initially winning over the judges (and fans) with his soft edges and unlikely note choices, Paul has yet to unveil the substantial vocal growth needed to continue wowing the crowd.
With no more saves, the votes are all the more crucial in this increasingly fascinating 10th season. Who do you think had the best all-around performance, and which two "Idol" hopefuls should be prepared to sway along to the exit music? Let us know in the comments section below.
(Check back with Billboard after every "American Idol" performance night for our recap and predictions, and follow us on Twitter @billboarddotcom for our live blow-by-blow of each episode.)