TV Recap

King of the Hill, Flop of the Heap

The New York auditions of ''American Idol'' feature some of the best, most moving, and most ''fantastically terrible'' performers yet

American Idol | THE SOUL OF QUEENS Porcelana Patino turned out to be a talent
THE SOUL OF QUEENS Porcelana Patino turned out to be a talent

''American Idol'': The New York auditions rule!

I've said it a number of times before — and I know a lot of you would agree — there's nothing worse than the smugly self-aware American Idol audition. You know the kind I'm talking about. Like the guy who opened tonight's episode, the one with the exaggerated New Yawk accent, a fauxchilla stole, and his own name emblazoned across his T-shirt. The one who already made a jackass of himself last year on Idol's sister series, So You Think You Can Dance. The one whose name I absolutely refuse to mention because you know today is the day he's scouring the Internet — every recap, every blog, every message board — looking for a wisp of evidence that maybe, just maybe, he's a little bit famous. But as Simon so succinctly put it, ''It's just rubbish.''

Which sort of raises the question: Why showcase clearly staged auditions at all? Especially when an episode like tonight's New York City-area auditions proves there's more than enough footage — be it hilarious, dramatic, exhilarating, or gut-wrenching — to pack a two-hour telecast.

Seriously, who'd have thunk that six seasons in, Idol still had such power to surprise? But there I was, an hour and 15 minutes in, waiting for the punchline that would inevitably finish off 27-year-old Queens resident Porcelana Patino. I mean, come on, the woman shares the name of a drugstore face cream. Her interview footage painted her as a self-dubbed American Idol soldier who went jogging through the streets of Queens every morning at 5 a.m. to shed 20 pounds and prepare for her shot at the title. And with her scraggly bottle-blond hair, scads of cheap bracelets, and a midriff that should've probably remained covered up, she looked like a castoff from a mid-'80s Madonna-wannabe convention. But to my wonder, as Porcelana ripped into Mary J. Blige's ''Love No Limit'' with all the innate rhythm of an R&B diva and the confident growl of a budding rock star, I realized the joke was on me. Not only is Porcelana headed to Hollywood, but she's a serious top 12 contender.

Similarly, I underestimated Jersey gal pals Amanda Coluccio and Antonella Barba — well one of them, anyway — when I initially dismissed them as tiresome Paris Hilton clones after seeing the vacuous interview footage of the duo hitting the beach and power shopping. Yet while Amanda's golden ticket was something of a stretch (if she makes the top 24, I'll challenge her to a public karaoke-off of Patsy Cline's ''Crazy''), Antonella's take on Debelah Morgan's ''Free'' revealed her to be a smoky-voiced original who isn't afraid to tackle an oddball song and knows how to squeeze the emotion out of a lyric.

I also liked the producers' decision to zero in on two contestants who'd returned to audition after crashing and burning during previous seasons' Hollywood weeks. It wasn't hard to predict that uncomfortable meltdown by 28-year-old Ashanti Johnson; sure, there was nothing wrong with her technically proficient take on Minnie Riperton's ''Loving You,'' but the desperation in her eyes and in her smile — even before the judges gave her the heave-ho — marked her as a performer who's not really cut out for Idol's long and grueling season. And her ''I have fought so hard for this'' exit monologue sounded as if she'd rehearsed it from the script of a hackneyed off-off-Broadway play.

On the other hand, Nicholas Pedro, who pushed his own eject button during last season's Hollywood rounds when he couldn't remember his lyrics, found sweet redemption during his rendition of ''Fly Me to the Moon''; what the guy's version lacked in Sinatra swagger was nearly made up for by his extremely pleasing tone — and the awesome reaction of a clearly smitten Paula. Watching her raise her hands over her head and hoot for Nicholas, I half expected her to pull a wad of singles from her purse and ask for a lap dance. (Ditto for her hot-and-bothered ''you're easy on the eyes'' comment to 16-year-old (yes, 16!) Jenry Bejarano — more on him in a minute.)

In the interest of fairness, though, I should say that Paula wasn't merely lucid tonight; she was downright insightful, pointing out to likeable Kia Thornton that not every note needs to be attacked with the force she exerted on Aretha Franklin's ''Ain't No Way,'' and zinging Simon for telling the castrato-sounding Christopher Henry he ought to be performing in a dress. Her observation that Simon wouldn't have gotten so personal with the shrill 20-year-old if he hadn't been a Cowell look-alike was as dead-on as it was amusing.

And also, if I'm gonna make fun of Paula's randiness, I need to make note of Simon's, too. The expression on his face when he looked up and found himself staring at Canadian-born Jory Steinberg's ample bosom was unapologetically lascivious, and downright hilarious. Thankfully, Jory nailed her audition to Tina Arena's ''Chains,'' so I won't have to accuse the cranky Brit of sending two ladies to Hollywood based solely on looks. Seriously, Simon's assessment that Sarah Burgess, the 19-year-old from Ohio with supposed daddy issues, was ''not the best singer'' but ''a trier'' is pretty much code for ''I wouldn't mind staring at your cleavage for a couple more numbers before I send you packing.'' As for Sarah's tearful confession to the judges that she never can live up to daddy's expectations, save it for the therapist's couch, sister — and invest in some voice lessons!

She'll need 'em if she's going to have any chance against fellow teenagers Jenry Bejarano and Rachel Zevita. The former was remarkably poised delivering a soulful interpretation of ''I'd Give Anything to Fall in Love''; he seems like the rare high schooler who won't look like an emotional lightweight in head-to-head competition with his elders. Rachel, meanwhile, who kind of resembled what Heather Matarazzo might look like with a feathery dream catcher in her hair, didn't exactly wow me with her rock-A.C.-opera combo, but at least she's, well, interesting.

If I were being polite, that's also how I'd describe Isadora Furman's version of ''Lady Marmalade.'' Except that it wasn't really the LaBelle classic. True, it had the words to ''Lady Marmalade,'' but set to an anti-melody that sounded like the cross between an intense orgasm and the death cry of a wounded yak. If only every bad Idol audition could be so awesomely odd and, as Simon called it, ''fantastically terrible.''

And if only the show could always close with an exchange as amusing as the one between Isadora and host Ryan Seacrest that ended tonight's episode:

Ryan: ''How would you sum up day two in New York?''

Isadora: ''Day two or three?''

Ryan: ''For us, it was two.''

Isadora: ''Okay.''

Ryan: ''How many for you?''

Isadora: ''Three.''

Ryan: ''I think that pretty much sums it up. Thanks for watching.''

What do you think? Were you as pleased as I was with tonight's New York auditions? Was I the only one whose heart broke a little when Nakia Claiborne's ''Dancing in the Street'' didn't impress the judges and ended in her ''tired of hearing no'' breakdown? And, as my colleague Dawnie Walton asked me in a text message tonight, what was Joan Collins doing at the judges' table with Paula, Randy, and Simon?

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Originally posted Jan 25, 2007
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