'American Idol' Top 12 Guys Offer Promising Start

'American Idol' Top 12 Guys Offer Promising Start

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.

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.

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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?

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