Everything is big in Texas, including, judging by the American Idol auditions in Dallas, the talent. It was in Dallas, after all, that the judges found Season One winner Kelly Clarkson, and the clips from those days were a reminder of how the judges looked nine years and several million dollars ago. Joining the table for day one in Big D was the generally entertaining Neil Patrick Harris, who acknowledged his role as the show's Jerk of the Day by ironically describing his goal as to crush as many dreams and make as many people cry as possible.
The Doog may have had little sympathy for the contestants who prostrate themselves in the hallway and wail to high heaven after being cut (“If they can't handle this heat, that [Hollywood] stage is a broiler”), but he had less opportunity to lower the boom than on previous shows. Easing up on the parade of clowns, the show focused almost entirely on promising singers, handing out a whopping 32 golden tickets, a season record. The only attempt at drama on this night was the producers' efforts to set up a pissing contest between Harris and Simon, which wasn't terribly convincing despite careful editing.
The only genuine drama, of course, is the recently leaked story that one of this season's Top 24, “Big Mike” Lynche, has been yanked from the show over a confidentiality breach, after his father, “Big Mouth” Lynche, apparently blabbed about it. We'll miss you, Big Mike. Then again, we never got to know you since you weren’t given screen time in the audition shows, a reflection of the show's tendency to breast its cards carefully, hence your dismissal. So let that be a lesson to all of you: Loose lips sink ships, and your dad can be so proud of you that he can't help but ruin your one chance at stardom.
The travesties were limited to two or three, including Julie Kevelighan. Like Kelly Clarkson, she’s a blast from Dallas audition past, now a 28-year-old college student, who showed up carrying a “This is My Year” sign and sang “Black Velvet”. The judges poured on the jeers, each one trying to one up the others as the most exasperated by the torture of it all. Simon even criticized her makeup. Mercifully, Julie appeared too clueless to even need thick skin, chalking up her rejection to the fact that she “should've taken a deep breath” before she started.
It was similar to Harris asking Dave Pittman, who has Tourette syndrome, “What, do you have Tourettes or something?” as if he hadn't already read it in his notes. Pittman sang Sam Cooke in a clear, rich baritone—a little bit country, a little bit soul—demonstrating the kind of flexibility that could take him deep into the show. Pittman, 27, noted that his symptoms—facial ticks and tremors—disappear when he sings, comparing such a phenomenon to Mel Tillis’s ability to sing without stuttering. Mel Tillis? How many twenty-somethings remember Mel Tillis? I'm guessing the birthers are going to be out in force this season.
Things turned rosier with Lloyd Thomas, a 29-year-old (wink, wink) father of two girls, who sang a nice version of Stevie Wonder's “Overjoyed”. Lloyd has a big, overbearing personality, constantly talking and mugging for the camera, which might make viewers wish for his early exit, but the judges were impressed with his vocals, especially Kara, who managed to be mean even when she was trying to be nice: “You're a dock worker, and you have this voice?” Kara’s sniffy disdain for manual labor had dock workers everywhere ready to drop a palate of heavy crates on her like Kayo Dugan in On the Waterfront.
And how about Erica Rhodes, a former cast member on Barney and Friends who showed up in full dominatrix garb, complete with a whip and Gene Simmons boots. She first sang Barney’s “I Love You” theme song, at Randy’s request, a disturbing moment, but actually a better performance than her whip-snapping version of En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”. Erica is pretty and talented, so the S&M gimmick felt cheap and unnecessary, but she’s through to the next round either way.
Joe Jonas took over as guest judge in the second half and limited his input to an occasional “yeah” when it came time to vote, thereby breaking Posh Spice's previous record of least-judging judge. Simon probably loved him, since he replaced the take-charge style of Harris, who had the audacity to steal Simon's, “Randy, what do you think—yes or no?” lines. The talent continued to look up, including Todrick Hall, who sang an original song that he wrote about the judges and the very audition he was performing, which actually worked much better than one would predict. He’s a genuine singer, perhaps the best of the season so far and already with Broadway experience, so it would be a shocker if he’s not among the Top 24 later on; he’s probably the best contestant we’ve seen this season.
Less impressive but still legitimate is Meagan Wright who arrived with young brother Dawson—kids say the darnedest things!—and sang a torchy version of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”. The judges liked her better than I did. Then again, Kara’s compliment was, “Walking in with that outfit, I thought this was going to be a joke.” Clearly no joke was Christian Spear, who survived childhood leukemia, and at 16, she’s healthy and talented and holding a golden ticket after her reserved but skilled version of Etta James’s “All I Could Do is Cry”. Her family showed up in Christian Spear t-shirts, and the thought of having Christian not only still with them but securing a shot at the national stage was this season’s most genuinely moving moment.
Next week: Amid audition burnout, the tryouts move to Denver for yet another round.