Bad girls finish first: Nicolina's Disney Night villainess song makes 'American Idol' history

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Sunday was Disney Night on American Idol, an annual tradition in which focus-stealing center judge and part-time professional cosplayer Katy Perry always makes her wildest Disneyana dreams come true. It’s basically Katy’s own Met Ball. Katy really outdid herself this 20th season, rolling up (literally) in a fish-tailed Little Mermaid ensemble, wheeling onto the set like Bette Midler circa ’78 — and then taking a tumble, in the most awkward televised mermaid-costume moment since Donna Martin attended that ill-fated Halloween party on 90210.

But, as amusing as Katy’s Ariel act may have been, Katy had nothing on Sunday’s Little Mermaid villainess Ursula, aka top 10 diva Nicolina Bozzo — who brassily belted “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and had Katy shaking in her scales. Nicolina actually made Idol history as the first contestant to ever sing a villain’s song on Disney Night, and she proved that bad girls finish first. Delivering a big-screen-worthy performance that actually seemed more like an audition for a potentially Tony-winning run on Broadway, Nicolina brought all the spunk, torchy fire, and Lady Gaga-level drama. This was theater. Nicolina didn’t just chew the scenery — she devoured it. And it all worked.

“That was so good, it was scary,” Katy gasped, as Nicolina stood there imposingly in her Hot Topic prom night finery. “Honestly, I think you stole the show. That is how you do it. That's how you do show business: the entrance, the fog, the look. That was incredible.” Host Ryan Seacrest even added, “It was like watching a movie.”

It was admittedly a risk for Nicolina to lurch into sea hag/anti-heroine mode on this otherwise warm ‘n’ fuzzy family night, but her bold move obviously paid off. Most of the other top 10 contestants played it safe, and the ones who played it the safest — Lady K with “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, Emyrson Flora’s Stepford-smiley “Carried Me With You” from Onward, Mike Parker’s well-intentioned but treacly cover of Phil Collins’s Tarzana ballad “I’ll Be in Your Heart” — were all voted off by the end of the night. That left us with our top seven. So, with the finale just three weeks away, it seems like Nicolina has secured her frontrunner status… but who else has a chance at a Disney-esque happy ending this season? Let’s assess this week’s other performances:

Noah Thompson, “You Got a Friend in Me” (from Toy Story)

The untrained Noah doesn’t have a big set of power-pipes like Nicolina, but this cozy, cutesy Randy Newman classic fit his personality perfectly. He even reminded me a bit of immensely likable Season 8 winner Kris Allen tonight. This nice guy could finish first. “I think that was my favorite song you've sang besides your Rihanna song. … You gave it so much character, color, and country crooning. It was some of your best vocals ever,” said Katy. Lionel Richie told Noah, “It was the perfect song choice, and more importantly, your attitude was wonderful because it was a sing-along moment. I loved it.”

Huntergirl, “I See the Light” (from Tangled)

This definitely showed a different, softer side of the honky-tonk good-time gal, and I did appreciate Huntergirl’s willing to step outside of her comfort zone with a sophisticated, string-laden ballad. However, I don’t think it ultimately suited her. I was bored. Plus, the song drew attention to her vocal shortcomings. However, the judges, who’ve adored Huntergirl ever since they handed her that platinum ticket on the Season 20 premiere, fawned all over her as usual. “To stand there and sing a Disney song that beautiful, I can only say to you, that's your whole career right there,” gushed Lionel. “Obviously you are a country girl from Tennessee, but the elegance and the beauty of that performance, I can see award shows in the future,” said Luke Bryan. And Katy even declared this Huntergirl’s “Cinderella moment.”

Jay, “Remember Me” (from Coco)

OK, this was a perfect song choice for this particular contestant. It brought out a previously unheard sultriness and feathery texture, and the simple accompaniment of a lone “sad guitar” was nice, especially since Jay used to have a tendency to overdo and overthink and oversing everything. He also worked the stage like a pro. I certainly see award shows in his future. “I love that you started in a different position. Showmanship! You are the only one who has used the stage. We want the stage to be used up. We want that energy. You did that,” said Katy. “This is the second week in a row that you've really gave us timeless performances, and your choices are just such classic sounds. That usage of your falsetto throughout the whole song was something we haven't heard all year,” observed Luke. And Lionel told Jay, “That was levels you showed us tonight. Levels.”

Leah Marlene, “When She Loved Me” (from Toy Story 2)

Leah contemplated playing piano tonight — something she hasn’t done yet this season — and while I was at first disappointed to find out she’d changed her mind at the last minute, that turned out to be the right decision. Standing at the microphone allowed Leah to really act out the song with her endlessly expressive face — guest mentor Derek Hough said she looked like a real-life cartoon character, in the best possible way. She was just so utterly charming; what a pure-hearted, poignant performance. “You're just a great singer. You've yet to hit a bad note in this competition. You always tell the story perfectly, and you just did it with that song,” said Luke. “I am just hooked on every single word you sing. The growth is so beautiful, and that delivery was so silky-smooth. I'm so proud of you,” raved Katy.

Christian Guardino, “The Circle of Life” (from The Lion King)

At first I figured this was a great choice for the power-singer… but then I remembered that this was the song that sent home the almighty Jennifer Hudson in Season 3, despite her version literally being considered one of the best performances in Idol history. Christian obviously didn’t get sent home, but I don’t think his version was at that majestic J.Hud level. It was far from is best vocal; he was practically yelling the song at times, lacking a grasp on the Elton ballad’s dynamics. But the judges and studio audience seemed to love it. Luke nicknamed this soul singer “Christian Gonna-Need-a-Security-Guard-ino” and bizarrely told him, “You sang it perfectly.” Katy told Christian, “Before you started this song, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a whole bit and I hope he doesn't overdo it.’ But it was perfect. It was the perfect circle.” It was notperfect. Maybe it sounded different through Katy’s eardrum-obstructing plastic Ariel wig.

Fritz Hager, “Go the Distance” (from Hercules)

This was another completely connected performance from this relatable and lovable troubadour, with both his tenderness and quiet strength coming through. I loved this, and it felt modern — a little bit Bastille/Two Door Cinema Club/Bleachers/Imagine Dragons/X Ambassadors in vibe. Fritz has burned slowly but brightly throughout this competition, and I think we will see him in the finale. (It’s a good indicator of Fritz’s popularity that his independently released EP was No. 1 on the iTunes Pop chart last week.) “You stepped, again, into your light,” proclaimed Lionel. “Man, you always just nail it. … You understand the dynamics of taking the song and creating these moments within the songs. You're not surprising me anymore. I get it. You deserve to be here,” said Luke.

These top seven will compete again next Sunday, but before that, come back Monday for ABC’s special one-hour presentation “The Great Idol Reunion,” which will feature former judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson and beloved alumni like Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, and Maddie Poppe. Kieran, dim the lights, and see you then.

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