Michael Slezak
March 01, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

”American Idol”: Two women lead the pack

On paper, there are 10 women competing for a half-dozen spots in the American Idol season-6 finals, but all of us who’ve watched the first two weeks of semifinals know that’s not exactly true.

I mean, can any of you think up a believable scenario in which Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones don’t make it to the big stage? Maybe if they were taped seizing hapless dog walker Leslie Hunt and viciously hurling her over the red-room balcony onto the semifinal stage? Or got busted for replacing bubbly teen Jordin Sparks’ hair conditioner with Drano? Oh, who am I kidding — nothing is stopping the dynamic duo from a date with (at the very least) the Idol Top 10 tour this summer. Nor should it — certainly not after Melinda’s thoroughly exhilarating cover of ”My Funny Valentine” or LaKisha’s rousing ”Midnight Train to Georgia.”

I hate to jump on the superlative wagon this early in the season, but I’m having a hard time remembering an Idol contestant who’s ever matched the sophistication of Melinda’s phrasing during her performance tonight. The way she wrapped her rich voice around each word of Rodgers and Hart’s exquisite composition, often in unexpected ways (like repeating the ”smart” in ”are you smart?”), was the musical equivalent of a five-star dining experience after a steady diet of Taco Bell. Sure, Melinda’s fashion sense tends toward the frumpy, and given the awesomeness of her gift, I sometimes wish she’d rein in the ”Who, little ol’ me?” humility, but ultimately, Simon is right: In a world where ”precocious little monsters” like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan can crack the top 20, there’s reason to celebrate the unveiling of an artist like Melinda.

If Melinda is this season’s haute cuisine, then LaKisha is its delicious home-cooked meal. I know I’m a cheeseball for saying it, but I swear the sound of her voice is good for my soul. No, her ”Midnight Train” didn’t match the soaring heights of last week’s ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” but from a strategic standpoint, I think LaKisha was wise to prove she doesn’t need to play the belter card every week. The restraint she brought to Gladys Knight’s classic, especially the almost-whispered final ”Georgia,” was a nice touch, and it showed that unlike so many Idol wannabes, she can stay on key even when she’s not going full throttle. Hopefully she’ll take Simon’s fashion advice, save the dumpy orange blouse and denim mini for afternoon trips to the mall, and start dressing like the star she’s about to become.

Now while nothing much happened this week to convince me that Stephanie Edwards, Sabrina Sloan, Jordin Sparks, and Gina Glocksen shouldn’t round out the top 6 women this season, I can’t shake that nagging voice in my head that keeps saying, ”This is Idol. Don’t get your hopes up. You know at least a couple dreadful vocalists are gonna stick around and haunt you from now until April.” And that makes me worried that either Stephanie or Sabrina could be at risk this week or next, especially considering that both are still suffering from a screen-time deficit and a twinge of ambivalence from the judges.

Certainly, Stephanie won’t get eliminated for lack of ambition. Her decision to tackle the treacherously complicated (and relatively current) ”Dangerously in Love” proved, as Simon said, that she’s not just taking part in the competition, she wants to win the damn thing. And though I heard maybe one or two wobbly notes in Stephanie’s rendition tonight, I have to be honest: As big a Beyoncé fan as I am, I’ve always thought ”Dangerously in Love” was an utter bore. But not so on Stephanie’s watch; dare I say it, the urgency and commitment she brought to the ballad actually improved on the original.

Sabrina, on the other hand, did no such favors to Whitney Houston’s somewhat dated ”All the Man That I Need,” which was kind of disappointing, considering the show’s producers placed her last in the night’s lineup — traditionally the pimp spot reserved for one of the main contenders. It almost felt as if, midway through her performance, Sabrina suddenly decided she needed to crank up the volume — maybe to try to drown out viewers’ memories of her primary competitors — and ended up losing the joy, the originality, and the tunefulness she brought last week to her Aretha Franklin cover. That said, I still believe that a Sabrina-free top 12 would be an inherently less interesting and less competitive one, and I hope the voting public agrees.

Which could leave either Jordin or Gina vulnerable for a surprising elimination next week. (I’m betting both will survive Thursday night just fine.) Indeed, I doubt Jordin will ever again receive the kind of free pass she got from the judges tonight after a truly wretched rendition of Christina Aguilera’s ”Reflection.” Right from the opening notes, the kid had more sharps than a Ginsu factory, and even worse, she brought to the song all the emotional gravitas of a girl who might count her first viewing of Disney’s Mulan as a life-defining moment. I was flabbergasted that not even Simon could get past Jordin’s tears and give an unvarnished critique of her performance, but that probably just means she’ll score big among the Sympathy Voters Bloc. Also, I think it’s fair to say she’s a much better singer than her performance indicated.

Gina, for her part, made the strategic error of choosing ”Alone,” the one song pretty much every Idol fan associates with wildly successful season-4 champ Carrie Underwood. Clad in an oddly cut red prom dress, Gina delivered a competent but slightly shrill rendition of the song that, unfortunately, proved she’s an inferior vocalist not only to Ann Wilson and Carrie but also to the Idol backup vocalists who pretty much overpowered her on the chorus. When the heck is this chick going to start courting rock fans, who really don’t have a contestant to call their own this season?

Lucky for Gina, she ought to get another chance to do just that, since this week’s doomed women must surely be plucked from the shallow end of the talent pool where Antonella Barba, Leslie Hunt, Haley Scarnato, and Alaina Alexander continue to swim. Antonella might be the least likely for elimination, by virtue of the publicity storm that accompanied the risqué photos of her that showed up on the Internet, and also because she managed to pull out a rather sweet moment hitting the one big note in her cover of Celine Dion’s ”Because You Loved Me.” Okay, it may have been the only note of the song she hit, but I still feel that if Antonella got smart and picked a soft, lilting ballad (think ”Lovin’ You,” or ”Do You Know Where You’re Going To”), she might actually be able to redeem herself before America sends her back to New Jersey.

Likewise, Leslie Hunt’s rendition of Nina Simone’s ”Feeling Good” wasn’t all bad — and might’ve sounded stronger had A.J. Tabaldo not given a superior reading just 24 hours before — but her peculiar diction, feeble attempts at scatting, and appalling sense of fashion could be more than viewers want to put up with for a third straight week. I’m hoping no Idol stylists were harmed in the assembly of Leslie’s brown tank top, red belt, white print skirt, black leggings, and red boots. And someone who looks so awkward trying to flash seven fingers to the viewers at home may simply not be cut out for a career in the performing arts.

Still, if I had to put money on who’s going home Thursday night, I’d go with Alaina and Haley. The utter lack of authority and authenticity in the former’s rendition of the Dixie Chicks’ Grammy-winning ”Not Ready to Make Nice” was, in a word, embarrassing. I mean, Alaina seems like a nice enough girl, but listening to her wheeze that she was ”mad as hell” and ”not ready to back down”? Uff da. I’ve got a feeling that the only line of the song that actually rang true — ”It’s too late to make it right” — is going to prove all too prescient.

Haley, meanwhile, may have a stronger voice than two or three of her rivals, but her cover of Whitney Houston’s ”Queen of the Night” was so bogus I didn’t know whether to cover my eyes or simply succumb to the hilarity of it all. Strutting around the stage with her crimped hair and Miss America-pageant vocal affectations, Haley seemed about as dangerous as a mildly agitated hummingbird. By the time she ran out of breath on the line ”When I’m bad, I know I’m better! I just wanna get looooose!” I couldn’t help it — I busted out laughing. And while I felt a little bit bad after watching Haley start crying over Simon’s critique, the feeling didn’t last for long. After all, who’s got time for guilt when there are four worthy contestants counting on your speed-dialing support?

What do you think? Which of the women earned your votes tonight? Who do you think deserves to get sent packing on Thursday? More important, who do you think will actually be eliminated? And are you glad the exhausting ”dedications” theme has finally come to an end? Finally, if you find that you’re not quite able to quench your appetite for all things Idol, be sure to check out EW’s new webcast, Idolatry. We’ll be posting new episodes every Monday and Friday from now through May.

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