Michael Slezak
March 12, 2008 AT 04:00 PM EDT

Chalk up another ”wow” moment for David Archuleta.

Unfortunately for the human equivalent of a fresh-hatched baby chick, his performance tonight of the Stevie Wonder version of the Beatles’ ”We Can Work It Out” provided a very different kind of ”wow” than what most American Idol fans were expecting. After all, the last time Little David got anywhere near a John Lennon-penned number, back in week 2 of the semifinals, to be precise, he delivered a rendition of ”Imagine” so pure and heartfelt that Paula threatened to squeeze off his head and attach it to her rearview mirror, and a lot of Idol prognosticators and fans wondered if the winner of season 7 was, for all intents and purposes, a foregone conclusion.

So imagine the shock tonight as Little David took the stage for Lennon-McCartney night in the end-of-show pimp spot and promptly missed the song’s opening note. (Strike one!) And then botched the second line of the first verse. (Strike two!) And then, a few seconds later, blanked on a few more words. (Strike three!) But wait, we’ve got one more fumbled line. (Uh, strike four?) And a wrecked attempt at falsetto! As Simon so succinctly put it, the performance was ”a mess.”

The whole experience was, to me, kind of like watching Kristi Yamaguchi fall on a simple spin, then struggle to get up. Or seeing Secretariat get a case of the staggers at the top of the Belmont Park stretch. Or witnessing Martha Stewart forgetting the correct placement of a dessert fork while setting her Thanksgiving table.

Okay, so the comparisons are a little unfair. Martha Stewart has had her entire adult life to master the art of magnificent homemaking (and make the rest of the planet feel slightly inferior by comparison). David Archuleta is a 17-year-old boy from Murray, Utah, who tonight, for the first time in his life, performed on Idol‘s big (and revamped) stage. That’d be a tall order for any singer, let alone one who’s carrying the added burden of great expectations and heavyweight hype on his back.

So now, inevitably, the question is going to shift from ”Does Little David have it in the bag?” to ”Is Little David at the start of a downward spiral?” (with perhaps a deeply cynical ”Could Team Archuleta have planned this debacle to avoid a peaked-too-early scenario?” thrown in for good measure). I’ll offer this thought: The kitten appeared to humbly land on his feet during his post-performance interview. And those very nice gentlemen and the seal-clapping lady at the judges’ table are gonna give him a chance to climb back up the tree, and see if he can handle the view when (or if) he gets to that lofty branch again. (Maybe he and his fellow contestants should read my Idol-advice gallery — complete with musical request lists — before proceeding any further.)

In the meantime, even if Little David had worked it out in front of 30 million viewers, several of his competitors performed so well that all on their own they’d have obliterated the idea that season 7 is a one-contestant race.

Needless to say, I was not expecting that Chikezie (not Eze) would wind up fitting that description, especially after his pre-performance interview found him discussing last week’s results show and dropping the following bomb on the audience: ”I was ready to go home.”

But maybe the feeling that he had nothing left to lose in the competition freed Chikezie from the slightly lounge-lizard constraints that have kept him at the back of the pack for the last three weeks, because his rendition of ”She’s a Woman” tonight was a revelation. Chikezie started with (as Paula coherently noted!) an O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe, and ended with me spontaneously bursting into applause at my TV screen and asking, ”O brother, who art thou?” Dude is gonna have trouble if he goes back to visit his former coworkers at LAX airport security, because with his gray, green, and white argyle sweater vest, that unexpected opening jolt of fiddle, banjo and tambourine, and his till-now-unheard falsetto, Chikezie was a dangerous weapon on the Idol stage tonight. Heck, when Ryan Seacrest spontaneously wipes your sweaty brow with his bare hand, you know you have done something special.

NEXT: Women move up

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