'IDOL' WATCH: Hollywood Round One

The first round of Hollywood auditions on "American Idol" brought the welcome addition of Ellen Degeneres to the judging panel. Ellen replaced Paula Abdul, after Paula was not hired back for "Idol's" ninth season. Ellen was a refreshing change to panel, being brutally honest to the contestants, as well as providing several amusing comments about the performances.

The first day in Hollywood had the contestants sing in groups of eight, either a capella or accompanying themselves on an instrument. Several of the performers expanded on excellent first auditions, while others really dropped the ball their second time in front of the judges.

One of the best auditions of the night came from my favorite contestant thus far, Andrew Garcia. Garcia performed a unique rendition of Paula Abdul's Straight Up, accompanying himself on the guitar. The remix could have been a recording already available for sale, as it was polished, impressive, and generally fun to listen to. Kara called the performance "genius" and Andrew was passed to the next round in Hollywood.

Country girl Vanessa Wolfe was surprising in her initial audition. (She was the singer who was excited to be passed through because it meant she would get to fly on an "aeroplane!") While Vanessa showed an excellent country voice her first time out, in Hollywood, she was pitchy and inhibited. Ellen noted that she was "hiding inside" during her performance of No Rain by Blind Melon. Wolfe did not make it to the second round.

Didi Benami, thus far my favorite female contestant, went out on a limb by performing Terrified by "Idol's" own Kara DioGuardi. It takes tremendous skill to live up to the original version of a song, especially when the recording artist is on the judging panel. Didi surpassed expectations, providing one of the best performances of the night, and made it through to the next round.

Passes to the next day in Hollywood seemed to be spread throughout all age groups. Single mother Mary Powers, a talented rock singer, gave an excellent performance of Sober by Pink. (In fact, Powers is quite reminiscent of the famed pop singer.) 16-year-old Haeley Vaughn was nervous about using her guitar, after the judges cut several singers who played instruments. However, her performance of Taylor Swift's Change was one of the better performances of the day, with the raspy quality of her voice adding a unique feel to the song.

"Big" Mike Lynche, who was widely reported to have been removed from the competition due to a breach of the confidentiality contract, sang Waiting on the World to Change by John Mayer to perfection. Many recent reports say it is possible Lynche wasn't actually cut, which seems all the more likely since he has been featured on the past two episodes. Additionally, Lynche received word his wife had gone into labor immediately prior to his performance, something that appeared to boost his confidence and earn him a spot in the next round.

Fan favorites in the first auditions that were cut in Hollywood: Skii Bo Ski gave an unimpressive performance of Ain't Too Proud To Beg by The Temptations, and was told "you frighten me" by Ellen. Beatboxer/singer Jay Stone's gimmick didn't earn him a spot in the next round. Innocent 16-year-old Maddy Curtis earned her way to Hollywood, but made a poor song choice, singing The Nearness Of You by Willie Nelson.

Other contestants who made it to the next round: Todrick D. Hall of Broadway's The Color Purple, crooner John Park, blues singer Casey James (who was much better this time around), and Crystal Bowersox, whose terrific performance of A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin had the entire auditorium singing along.

Overall, 95 contestants were passed through. Tomorrow, "Idol" will be in the second round of Hollywood auditions, where contestants form groups and are given a song to perform. The group auditions often prove to be one of the more drama-filled episodes of "Idol," and should be quite entertaining.

The next episode of "American Idol" airs Wednesday, February 9th, at 8PM EST on Fox.

"American Idol" is a reality competition to find new solo musical talent, created by Simon Fuller. It debuted June 11, 2002 on the Fox network and has since become one of the most popular shows on American television. It is currently the #1 TV show in the Nielsen Ratings and is one of only three that have been #1 for five consecutive seasons. The cast of "Idol" includes judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, and Ellen Degeneres, and host Ryan Seacrest.

The program aims to discover the best singer in the country through a series of nation-wide auditions, and subsequent viewer voting. Through telephone voting, America has chosen past winners Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, and Kris Allen.

Several "Idol" contestants have been seen on the Broadway stage, including Barrino (The Color Purple), Hicks (Grease), Clay Aiken (Spamalot), Diana DeGarmo(Hairspray), Josh Strickland (Tarzan), Tamyra Gray (Rent, Bombay Dreams), and Constantine Maroulis (The Wedding Singer, Rock of Ages).

"American Idol" airs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights on Fox at 8PM EST.


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