While the contestants usually take center stage during this round, the true star was new judge Ellen DeGeneres. Host Ryan Seacrest summed up early expectations by predicting she would be "kind, generous, honest, but direct." He continued: "Is that your plan?"
She responded, "I'm sorry. I wasn't listening." Love her already. It turns out she was all of the above, and funny, as well.
(from left) Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, Ryan Seacrest, Ellen DeGeneres, Simon Cowell
The first round consisted of each singer singing a song of their choice, a capella. Afterwards, each group of wannabes was separated into those who would be cut and those who would move on to the next round.
In the first group, we saw Katie Stevens, 17, who didn't seem a bit nervous. Although she was a little flat on some high notes, otherwise she sounded great. Simon Cowell remarked, as if he was surprised, "Actually, you're quite good." Randy Jackson praised her "great natural talent."
Then came Antonio "Skiiboski" Wheeler, whose confidence had helped put him through at his Atlanta audition. This time, instead of a dated red track suit, he wore a more modern chocolate brown shirt with golden angel embellishments. His phrasing was a little awkward, and he took many audible breaths. Still, he had nice tone. Commenting on his habit of pacing back and forth across the stage, staring at the audience intensely, Ellen said, "You were stalking us." She called him "a leopard behind a cage" and advised him, "Don't frighten your audience. Don't get so intense." She told him the difference between sexy and scary is a fine line.
The judges deliberate, and I have to say, I love Ellen's horn-rimmed glasses. To no one's surprise (except his), Skiiboski was cut; Katie was in. Skiiboski demanded to know why he was cut, to which Simon, who hadn't voted for him to go to Hollywood, replied, "You're just not a very good singer." As far as future advice, Randy counseled, "I would change your name, to start." [VIDEO of Katie and Skiiboski]
In the next round was an early stand-out, Andrew Garcia, 24, this time performing with his guitar. He wore a red and purple plaid shirt with a newsboy hat, and his acoustic performance of Paula Abdul’s "Straight Up" was very mellow, like a coffeehouse blues-folk performer, giving the song new dimension. He struck me as a potential singer-songwriter. Kara DioGuardi raved, "That was genius. Paula would be screaming and yelling and dancing. ... You just owned that moment and interpreted something in a way similar to the way Adam did last season." Comparing him to season 8's runner-up? Not a bad start for Andrew!
Country girl Vanessa Wolfe, whose big personality despite her shy audition had made her stand out at the Atlanta auditions, was featured in a package that showed her leaving her home town and heading for the big city.
She looked a little more modern this time around, wearing a blue ruffled sleeveless shirt. She chose "Rain" by Third Eye Blind, which was a bit of an odd choice. She was very rough at the beginning, clutching the microphone like a lifeline. Unlike her initial audition, she never really got past the nerves and was off pitch for most of it. Ellen gently remarked, "I think you have a unique quality that you should embrace." She added, "Those nerves are going to kill you."
The final determination was a no to Vanessa, a yes to Andrew. [VIDEO of Andrew and Vanessa]
These results were followed by a montage of people who got cut, crying and reacting. As part of this, Amedeo Dirocco, whose big Italian family was featured in the Boston auditions show, begged for a second chance and was told he "doesn't get it." Also cut are Cornelius Edwards, who had ripped his pants out during his Orlando auditions, and Maegan Wright, who had auditioned in Dallas.
Much more successful was Janell Wheeler, who seemed like a true professional. She wore a blousy white top and played guitar on a folksy version of Estelle’s "American Boy." The whole time she was very relaxed, with great projection. Ellen told her, "That was amazing. I loved it." Simon agreed: "That was a good audition. Well done." Janell was safely off to round two. [VIDEO]
Not everyone who played their own instruments was so successful, as demonstrated by a montage of people failing to impress.
Haeley Vaughan, who had previously shared her hopes to be a mainstream African-American country pop singer, had amped up her look, wearing a blue, flouncy short dress with sparkly earrings and sporting new extensions. She sang "Change" by Taylor Swift, accompanying herself with her guitar. It was a joyful performance with lots of energy but was pitchy in parts. Randy called it interesting and said she is "kind of a pop country girl."
Rocker mom Mary Powers had taken the criticism about her rocker look and toned it down a little, wearing a black shirt with a black leather jacket and kick-ass high-heeled saddle shoes. She was just as impressive during this round, singing a song that Kara co-wrote, Pink's "Sober." She definitely has a powerful voice. Ellen told her, "You have an amazing voice and you were very 'in' that song. Very good."
Both Haeley and Mary made it through. [VIDEO of Haeley and Mary]
Ellen then demonstrated her sense of humor, having a group of contestants step forward and then back several times before telling them, "You're all going through." Simon said, "You sadist," but the smile on his face said he approved.
Day two began the same process with new contestants. Simon advised them, "Don't be nervous, don't be boring and don't forget the words."
Cocky Jay Stone, who had hoped to be this season's Blake Lewis (season 6 runner-up), blending singing with beat-boxing, instead produced a hot mess of an audition. Afterwards, Simon said: "That was ridiculous." Ellen remarked, "Something's wrong with his microphone."
By contrast, Lilly Scott impressed the judges with her rendition of "Birdland" by Ella Fitzgerald, accompanying herself on guitar. She has a very sweet voice, and unlike most contestants who take a jazzy approach, she still seemed contemporary. Of course, her quirky but confident fashion sense helped complete the package: dangling peacock feather earrings, a black miniskirt, white-blonde hair, and purple fishnet stockings (a combination that sounds worse than it looked). Kara gushed, "Everything about you is refreshing."
Lilly made it. Jay didn't. [VIDEO of Jay and Lilly]
Michael "Big Mike" Lynche got some big news over the phone: his wife's water had just broken. Still, he said that she was supporting him being there and would have been more disappointed if he'd skipped this opportunity. He performed with his guitar, wearing a black button-down shirt and jeans. His rendition of "Waiting on the World to Change" by John Mayer was refreshing, showing off a classic Motown style voice and adding a little soul. Simon liked the arrangement, concluding, "Michael, it's a good day."
Tim Urban, 20, who'd auditioned in Dallas, also performed with his guitar, singing the David Cook song "Come Back to Me." It's always risky to take on a song by a previous winner, and his version was just OK. The guitar could also use some tuning. He still sported a dated haircut, this time wearing a dark button-down. Kara noted the "chorus got a little shaky."
Justin Williams, a cancer survivor whose story had been featured during the Boston audition show, played keyboards for a very cabaret performance of Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." Wearing a gray shirt and black-and-gray striped tie, his breathy singing was very affected as he regarded the audience with smoky eyes. Randy said, "Definitely interesting. That's all I'll say."
Justin was the only one cut from that round. To my surprise, Tim Urban moved on. No surprise, though, that Big Mike sailed through. [VIDEO of Mike, Tim and Justin]
In a montage, we saw a number of other familiar faces from the auditions get cut, including Paige Dechausse, who auditioned in Chicago; Erica Rose (a.k.a. the naughty former Barney and Friends actress); and the Jersey sisters, Amanda and Bernadette Desimone.
In the next group was Maddy Curtis, 16, who has several adopted brothers with Down syndrome. Her voice was deeper than I remembered. I think she started out low so she could move up to a higher note. She wore a teal patterned scoop-neck dress with a stack of bracelets. While the song was almost haunting it also seemed old for her, and her performance was very stiff. Simon noted, "That was certainly the wrong song for you."
Surprisingly, Casey James, the guy who took off his shirt at Kara and guest judge Victoria Beckham's urging, showed he was more than a pretty face. Performing with his guitar, he turned in a bluesy that reminded me of Jonny Lang (come to think of it, he even looks like him). This time, he was much more relaxed and confident, showing some real skill. Randy exclaimed, "Dude, I actually loved that. You really are a real singer-songwriter."
Casey made it through. Maddy didn't. [VIDEO of Maddy and Casey]
In the final group was another early stand-out, Didi Benami, 23, a waitress who auditioned in Los Angeles. She chose the Kara DioGuardi song "Terrified," accompanying herself on guitar. Her hair straightened, she was wearing a gray tube dress, red tights, and dangly earrings with feathers. She had a very commercial sound, easily handling changes in pitch. She should watch, though, the grimaces she makes while singing, which I believe cost finalist LaToya London in season 3. Kara was simply glowing after Didi's performance and Simon made a little dig at Kara, saying, "I hate to admit it, but I really like that song." He said that Didi sounded really current. And he liked "the idea of someone like you, a waitress, coming on the show and doing well."
Also in this group was single mom Crystal Bowersox, whose strawberry blonde hair is in small dreds (a hairstyle that didn't hurt season 7 finalist Jason Castro). A package showed her getting a back tattoo of her adorable tow-headed son's name. She breathed new life into the old chestnut "Natural Woman," accompanying herself on guitar. Her rendition was heartfelt with an easy end to each phrase. She wore a red scoop-neck top with a black vest and jeans, an unassuming look for an impressive performance. She even had other contestants in the auditorium singing along with her. She reminded me a little of Janis Joplin (she even looks a bit like her). Simon called her "infectious," and observed, "You have a head start; you're real." Randy gave "mad love for your peeps singing backgrounds."
Crystal and Didi both made it. [VIDEO of Didi and Crystal]
At the end of the first round, 95 people moved on.
Tonight: the ultimate test, group round, with plenty of DRAH-MA!
A great back story isn't enough to get you through in Hollywood.