Ryan Seacrest described Pittsburgh as the "city of champions" at the start of Thursday night's "American Idol" auditions episode, and that wasn't just hyperbole put on his teleprompter by over-arching producers. The singers that Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, and Randy Jackson found in Pittsburgh, a town "Idol" had never visited before, was surprisingly solid--the show really ought to have held auditions there several seasons ago, judging from who lined up to try out for Season 11. And among them was one girl, the striking (and sob-storied) Hallie Day, whom J.Lo actually predicted could be the champion of this entire show.
early frontrunner Hallie Day
Oh, I'm sure that there will be many viewers out there disappointed by the lack of trainwrecky auditions in Pittsburgh. (The episode only featured one reject, whose biggest offense wasn't his actual singing voice, but the fact that he referred to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as being from the movie Shrek.) But personally, I was pleased that the episode showcased mostly good singers. After all, bad auditions may be fun for five minutes...but it's the good auditions that'll lay the groundwork for a great "Idol" season in the coming months.
Of the 38 Pittsburgh auditioners who received golden tickets to Hollywood on Thursday, here are the ones who stood out the most, or at least got the most screentime:
Heejun Han - When this Korean-born, New York-raised guy slumped onto the set looking restless and bored, waving his arms nervously like one of those inflatable plastic tube-men outside a car dealership and freely admitting, "I'm not that good," I figured this was going to go one of two ways: Either there was truth in Heejun's advertising and he'd be one of this week's token trainwrecks...or this was all just a fakeout setting him up for a "shocker" great audition. Oh, I know how these shows work, so of course it was the latter. Heejun's performance of Michael Bolton's "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You" was strangely good, and he was strangely lovable. (Remember, humility will get a guy far on "Idol." Kris Allen told the judges at his Season 8 audition that he didn't think he was that good, you know.) The judges all waved their arms in Heejun-like salute and waved him through to Hollywood, while Heejun stood there looking more shocked than any of the judges. I actually can't wait to see his kid in Hollywood. I'm waving my arms around in excitement just thinking about it.
Reed Grimm - This guy is like a real-life Partridge. He's been performing since the age of 2, growing up in a family band led by his musical parents. So of course for his audition, he had to go with a family-oriented song...the theme song to the sitcom "Family Matters"! (Yes, you read that right. Well, that's one way to be original: No cover of "Hallelujah" for this guy!) Actually, this was bizarrely awesome, and when Reed scatted, he was almost a little Casey Abrams-esque; all that was missing from his audition, really, was the melodica and a bushy red beard. Amusingly, Randy said, "Now we finally have some real music," which outed Randy as a big '80s sitcom soundtrack fan, and Steven weirdly called Reed a "genius." But this brother Grimm did impress with such an out-of-the-box audition. Now I can't wait to see Reed belt out some "Facts Of Life," "Three's Company," or "Diff'rent Strokes" in Hollywood.
Samantha Novacek - Apparently the Pittsburgh auditions were shot some time ago, back when planking was still all the rage for like, seven minutes. Planking? Really? Samantha brought her sister Patricia, aka "Patty The Pittsburgh Planker," to lie facedown on the floor while she crooned some Faith Hill. Samantha was not bad, but this janky planky gimmick was just plain silly, and Simon Cowell would have never stood for it. I almost wish the judges had given Patty the golden ticket instead, just to make Samantha an example for all other gimmicky wannabes on this show. But Jennifer heard the "guts behind the voice," and the judges all unanimously put Samantha through. Patty, however, was left on the floor; maybe she can take up fridging, or whatever America's crazy kids are doing nowadays, for Season 12.
Samantha & Patty The Planker
Creighton Fraker - Here was another scatter. I'll call this the Casey Abrams Effect (copyright pending--no one steal that, please). This kooky, seemingly Ritalin-deprived NYC street musician started off with a jocular, semi-improvised original ditty about "Idol," which was cute, but not nearly as cute or clever as the "Idol" original Season 9's Todrick Hall sang at his audition. I thought he was a little shrill and pitchy, and I didn't quite get why Steven was throwing that "genius" word around again or why Jennifer was telling Creighton he sounded like the lovechild of "Jamiroquai and Justin Timberlake." Creighton's second audition, of the Jackson 5's "Who's Loving You," also left me on the fence, wondering if this guy is good or just goofy. "There's something about you; I am kind of intrigued," Randy said. I was intrigued too, but I am still unsure if I was intrigued in a good way.
Eben Franckowitz - Wow, what a nice young man! Grandmas and little girls alike will go nuts for this well-spoken, well-mannered 15-year-old. Are we sure he's not really a 35-year-old standing on his knees or something? He simply seemed too nice, and too composed, and too mature crooning "Ain't No Sunshine," to match his Bieberish, boyish exterior. I instantly liked Eben, and I imagine much of America felt the same. The judges certainly did. "Some people just have it. Some people are just born to do it. You're one of those people," J.Lo told him. I hope Eben sets an example for all the brats watching at home. Good manners can get you places, kids!
Travis Orlando - Following Wednesday night's return of Season 10's top 40 semifinalist Colton Dixon, Travis was the second returning contestant this week to give "Idol" another try. Regular viewers may remember this 17-year-old for his Season 10 sob story about living in a Bronx shelter, and it seems since last year his life has taken a turn for the even worse: He's dropped out of high school, his mother abandoned the Orlando family for another man, and his father's health has worsened. Sad backstories are nothing new on this show, of course, and after 11 seasons of single moms, illness and accident survivors, homeless car-dwellers, etc., it's easy to get jaded when watching one contestant after another tell their tales of woe. But it was impossible not to feel sorry for Travis, or to realize just how much he wanted and needed this chance. His audition of "Isn't She Lovely" was not amazing, but the judges saw improvement in him from last year, and so they gave him his golden ticket out of the Bronx, for now. "I'm not a lowlife--I can do something with my life!" Travis declared. His emotional display was moving, and I'm kind of rooting for him--but really, I do hope he goes back to school one day.
Erika Van Pelt - I kind of knew I'd dig this 25-year-old mobile DJ and wedding singer before she even sang a single note of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." She just had that vibe. ("I had a feeling when you walked in, this could be good," Steven later told her. I guess we're both psychic.) And yes, I will still love her tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and every day that she remains on the show, if she keeps singing like she did at her first audition. What a gorgeous, smoky, sultry voice! Steven was even singing along with her, which is always a good sign with him. Erika also seemed like the type of female contestant that female viewers would support--approachable, not too sexy or vampy or flashy--so maybe Erika can break the long-running "Idol" female curse this season.
Erika Van Pelt
Hallie Day - Hallie may look like a movie star (or like Deborah Harry, as J.Lo pointed out), but don't hate her because she's beautiful, catty female viewers. Hallie has a harrowing backstory behind her pretty face and platinum locks. Nine years ago, when she was only 15, Hallie dropped out of school to move to New York and join a girl group called Plum Crazy. When that didn't pan out, Hallie's life got crazy indeed, as she downward-spiraled into drug abuse and even tried to commit suicide. Eventually she met and married the man whom she now credits with saving her life--and he just might have saved her musical career by encouraging her to try out for "Idol." Her audition of "I Will Survive" (interesting, semi-autobiographical song choice there) was fantastic, and she easily established herself as a major contender. "You do have a gift; your husband is right," J.Lo told her, ending the episode on a literal high note.
Hallie discusses her dark past
So now the season is truly in full swing, as promising early frontrunners like Hallie Day, Reed Grimm, Eben Franckowitz, and Erika Van Pelt join Wednesday's Savannah standouts like Colton Dixon and Phillip Phillips. Will "Idol" maintain its momentum as the auditions continue in San Diego, on this Sunday's special bonus episode? I certainly hope so. The show may have experienced a 27 percent ratings drop on its premiere night, but if auditions like these can keep on generating buzz, then Season 11 will be unstoppable.