A week ago, the "Idol" finalists were awestruck at the chance to work with Stevie Wonder. Most of the contestants acted like they'd just won the musical lottery, and treated his comments like holy writ.
This week, the guest celebrity was Barry Manilow, who didn't generate anywhere near the same reverence. Manilow's sold about a trillion records and has a nightly show in Vegas — he might as well have been manning the microphone at karaoke night for all some of the 11 remaining hopefuls seemed to care. Some of the contestants took his advice with skepticism or ignored it entirely.
Others gave him a chance, with Elliott Yamin becoming a convert. "I just wasn't a fan of his work," he told host Ryan Seacrest, "but by the end of the session I was a true Barry Fanilow." Across America, millions of viewers groaned at the pun.
All the finalists, however, were fans of the show's theme, which was not actually Barry Manilow tunes. "Idol" is doing great in the ratings, but two hours of "Mandy" and "I Write the Songs" might have been too strong a test of viewer loyalty. Instead, it was all about music from the 1950s, which made it easy for everyone to pick songs that fit in with their styles.
Mandisa, 29, Antioch, Tenn.: Barry Manilow wanted Mandisa to start Dinah Washington's "I Don't Hurt Anymore" with a big note, and build towards a big finish. She disagreed, and started off a little softer. And as Manilow acknowledged, she was right. Mandisa threw down the gauntlet early with an effort good enough that even Simon Cowell — who once snarked that "Idol" might need a bigger stage to support her — called it "a real sexy performance." Grade: AThe judges: "I don't know who's waiting in the wings, but y'all have got to bring it tonight. Mandisa has set the bar." – Randy Jackson. Stay or go: Singing first is a disadvantage, and Ace Young wound up in the bottom three after starting off the show last week. The only danger for Mandisa would be if her fans fell asleep during the second half of the show and didn't wake up in time to vote, but barring that she's a sure thing.
Bucky Covington, 28, Rockingham, N.C. : Covington sang "Oh Boy" by Buddy Holly, and had the misfortune of giving a blah performance in between show-stoppers from Mandisa and Paris Bennett, and before a much better rock performance from Chris Daughtry. It wasn't terrible, but on a night when pretty much everybody else came through with strong performances, Covington didn't offer anything memorable. And his early singing slot may prove fatal to his chances.Grade: CThe judges: "It was nothing more than a pointless karaoke performance." – Simon Cowell.Stay or go: Covington sang early in the show and paled in comparison to those singing around him. He wasn't even in the bottom three last week, but is in grave danger this time around.
Paris Bennett, 17, Fayetteville, Ga.: Bennett sang "Fever" by Peggy Lee, an old song for a young woman to sing. But as Barry Manilow said, "I told her Peggy Lee was cool, but she's not cool — she's hot." She certainly was this time around — it was a sultry effort from someone who hasn't even graduated from high school. She sang a song first performed 30 years before she was even born. That may have made some of the audience feel old, but the performance sounded fresh. Grade: A-The judges: "That's amazing. I forgot you were 17 there with some of those moves." – Paula Abdul. Stay or go: Bennett's in no danger of being voted off this week.
Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: Daughtry is at once the most and least predictable of the "Idol" finalists. On the one hand, it's obvious at this point that the show's theme could be "Songs from 'Mary Poppins'," and Daughtry could still find a way to twist a rock piece out of the soundtrack. But that also makes him the most original of the contestants, since he's the only one on the show who doesn't fall into the karaoke trap. He sang Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line," and rocked it out as only he can. It was another strong effort — as Manilow said, "You don't need me!" Grade: AThe judges: "I think you are the first contestant we've ever had on the show who's actually refused to compromise." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Daughtry's the favorite of Simon and most of the voters. There's no doubt he'll be back next week.
Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: Simon apparently couldn't remember McPhee's name in an interview earlier in the day, but he sure knows it now. She sang "Come Rain or Come Shine" by Ella Fitzgerald, and although it wasn't any better than what she's done in the previous few weeks, it seemed to catch the ears of the judge everyone loves to hate. He was effusive in his praise, a rare sight indeed. Grade: A-The judges: "I think tonight, you turned into a star." – Simon CowellStay or go: A star? That's stretching it a bit. But it was a nice effort, and she's safe.
Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: Hicks greeted Manilow by singing a few bars from "Mandy," which is only natural considering his music was probably a big deal at Hicks' senior prom in 1962. Hicks, who the judges are calling "The Silver Fox" and who Randy referred to as "Jay Leno, George Clooney and a bit of Phil Donahue all put together," isn't the best vocalist, but he's definitely the best showman. That carried him though a performance of "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly that was good, but nowhere near as earth-shattering as some of the others. Grade: BThe judges: "Someone should be shooting this and making an exercise video out of it. We'd all lose a whole bunch of weight" – Paula Abdul. Stay or go: It's hard to see Hicks being in trouble for the next few weeks unless he truly hurts himself onstage and has to drop out.
Lisa Tucker, 16, Anaheim, Calif.: Tucker entered the night in the most precarious position, having finished with the second-lowest number of votes last week. She chose to sing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, and sounded fine. The problem is that it didn't stand out — it's a song everyone in the audience has probably heard a million versions of, and though Tucker sang it well, the vocals were closer to "Star Search" than stardom. Grade: B-The judges: "There are times tonight when I think I'm trapped in a high school musical, and I want to leave." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: It's hard to say how much danger Tucker is in, but it doesn't help that most of her competition sang very well. She's certainly vulnerable, and at the least should find herself back in the bottom three.
Kevin Covais, 16, Levittown, N.Y.: Covais sang "When I Fall in Love," popularized in the '50s by Nat King Cole, after first informing the audience that, being 16, he had yet to experience true love. Perhaps to help him out, the producers kept showing former contestant Jasmine Trias in the audience. Yeah, Kevin, dream on. But it wasn't a terrible performance, and it was a perfect song choice for a teenager — Manilow kept calling him a "boy" — among men.
Grade: B-The judges: "I like you, because you're like a man. You can take it. You know who I think your audience is, and your audience is going to love that version." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Song choice may prove key for Covais. He did well to make himself sound younger, because all of the other men in the competition are at least nine years older. He's in danger every week, but he has managed to make it this far and didn't do anything to lose ground here.
Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: Yamin's vocals are solid every week, and his rendition of "Teach Me Tonight" by Al Jarreau was no exception. His issue is that he and Bucky are fighting it out to be the blandest personality of the six men in the competition, and tonight didn't do much to change that. He doesn't have the sizzle of the top contenders, which means he's in trouble as soon as he has a week where the theme doesn't fit his style. But this wasn't that week. Grade: BThe judges: "Since this is a singing competition, allow me to judge your singing. It was fantastic." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Yamin's no sure thing, but the odds are in his favor.
Kellie Pickler, 19, Albemarle, N.C.: Much like Daughtry makes every week into Rock Night, Pickler turns every performance into a cross between country rock and the old "Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters" TV show. She struggled last week, but came back huge this week by picking a Patsy Cline song that was right in her musical wheelhouse. Her rendition of "Walkin' After Midnight" was a lot better than her struggle to make her voice work with Stevie Wonder's music last week. Grade: B+The judges: "Simon called you a minx, not a mink. But you were a tigress tonight. This was a true, authentic Pickler performance." – Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Pickler's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Ace Young, 25, Denver, Colo.: Young was visibly stunned to be in the final three last week, perhaps because he was under the assumption that his sultry looks into the camera would magically compel women to text in their votes. Since that strategy didn't work, he concentrated on making a jazzier version of "In the Still of the Night" by the Five Satins work. It was a much better performance, and he'll be helped by his position at the end of the show. Grade: BThe judges: "Ace, I counted. There are 34 signs that say 'Ace, will you marry me?'" – Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Simon went so far as to say Young wouldn't be in the bottom three this week. That's going out a limb, but he's not in much danger of finishing last.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.