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An hour-and-a-half later, ‘Talent’ pool is set

It turns out that America has some serious talent after all, but for the next few weeks it'll be on display in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Olympics. For that reason, "America's Got Talent" aired a special 90-minute episode Thursday night to wrap up the Las Vegas callbacks and announce the top 40 acts that will move on to the live semifinal round in Hollywood. Since the tapings of the show, though,
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It turns out that America has some serious talent after all, but for the next few weeks it'll be on display in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Olympics. For that reason, "America's Got Talent" aired a special 90-minute episode Thursday night to wrap up the Las Vegas callbacks and announce the top 40 acts that will move on to the live semifinal round in Hollywood.

Since the tapings of the show, though, one semifinal act, the Russian Bar Trio, was forced to drop out of the competition because the cornerstone of the act, Christine, suffered a serious injury while trying to complete a complicated jump. Fans have been asked to vote online for that act's replacement from a list of eight wild-card picks laid out by the judges.

But it took an hour and a half to determine who was in, who was out and which eight performers have their second chance resting in the hands of America's voters.

Familiar faces and performances flashed on the screen as judges Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan and David Hasselhoff conferred, their voices only heard over images of the acts they were talking about. The performers came to face the judges, one by one, and 40 would find out their dream would continue while the rest would discover the end of the road.

Mostly good news

Bryan Cheatham and Kyle Rifkin, head-to-head competitors if the assumption is there's only room for one R&B singer, discovered their fates next. Their moments in front of the judges were shown together and Bryan, the former Chippendale's dancer, yelped when he got the good news that he was moving on. "American Idol" winner David Cook's "This Is the Time (Of My Life)" played in the background. Hey, isn't Simon Cowell the executive producer of "America's Got Talent"?

Paul Salos, the 71-year-old Frank Sinatra impersonator, got emotional when he talked about how badly he wants to make it to the semifinals. "I've got to make it," he said. "It's my last chance." After chasing his dream for four decades, Salos got his ticket punched to Hollywood.

Kaitlin Maher, the 4-year-old cutie, appeared to be on her way out as The Hoff said earlier in the process that he wasn't sure it was appropriate to put her into the final 60. But she made it into the final 40 and continued on the road to $1 million.

Army sergeant Daniel Jens was worried that his mistake, forgetting the lyrics in the Vegas callback audition, might have cost him. Piers told him they struggled with the decision and that his performances weren't perfect. The bottom line, Piers said, was that they thought Jens was "fantastic" and decided to put him into the semifinals.

Other acts heading into the next round include: Elvis impersonator Jonathan Hall; urban violinists Nuttin' But Stringz; freak show performer George "The Giant" MacArthur; hip-hop quartet The James Gang; Tina Turner impersonator Dorae Saunders; impressionist Matthew Piazzi; singer-pianist Eli Mattson; dancer Ronny B.; Ukrainian twin sisters Indiggo; magician Shimshi; pyromaniac Flambeaux; 10-year-old martial artist Elite; drag queen opera singer Shequida (who took his blond wig off in celebration); percussion group Plastic Musik; magician Bruce Block; and trombonist Jonathan Arons from the season premiere.

Queen Emily, the 42-year-old single mom, faced her fate after some teasers that hinted at her taking the news hard. The Hoff told her she touched them, but that they couldn't put her through based on emotion. He said he didn't like being a judge, "because you've got to break hearts." He built up the drama as high as he could before telling her she was going through. She fell to the stage floor in tears and shouted with joy at hearing the news.

Jonathan Burkin, the 17-year-old baton twirler who'd faced a lifetime of teasing and bullying for his chosen craft, made it into the next round. You could tell it was a poignant moment because Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars," the official TV music for poignant moments, started playing in the background.

Jessica Price, the 24-year-old singer-guitarist whose father abandoned her family, said she thought she could do a lot better. She was overwhelmed with tears and gratitude when the judges told her she was moving on.

Britney Spears drag queen impersonator Derrick Barry heard the judges tell him there was a lot of debate about him and that there are "so many impersonators" in the competition. When The Hoff told he was in, Derek thanked them and said he would show them his best work. "You've got a lot of talent, bro," Hasselhoff said, perhaps trying to keep himself aware of the gender line?

Cuts like a knife

Sword swallower Dan Meyer stood and listened as Piers told him the judges loved his act and didn't dispute that he was one of the best in the world at what he does. But he would not be moving on to the next round.

New Orleans street performers Lil Countrie and Page 1NE talked about their long journey, with one of them saying, "I feel like I'm rebuilding my city one show at a time." Piers said it was a split decision, and The Hoff broke the news that they would not continue in the competition.

Xclusive, a popper who showed his best stuff, found out that it wasn't good enough to keep him around for another round.

Donald Braswell, the singer who had his vocal cords severed in a car accident 11 years ago, took the long walk to the judges' table to find out what his future held. The Hoff called Braswell's story "the comeback story of all time." Despite all that, The Hoff told Braswell he would not be going on to the next round.

"I have three beautiful girls, they know they my story, they know what's happened to me. But they never knew their daddy when he sang. They didn't know him. And," he said as he cried, "I wanted me girls to see me. I wanted this for them.

America's Next Top Dance Crews

Consider this the year of the dancer on "Talent," as dancers and dance crews make up nearly a quarter of the semifinalists.

Whether they can be considered a dance group, or not, a group of inflated animal mascots dressed in sports uniforms, the Zooperstars, made their way to the stage. A duck in the group fell flat on his face walking up the stage steps, which made for an unexpected laugh-out-loud moment. They broke into dance when Piers, the judge who most vehemently criticized the group at its first audition, told them they were moving on. Other dance groups followed, including the Slippery Kittens, the Dallas Desperados dance team, Sickstep, The Tapping Dads, and the DC Cowboys.

The dancing crews came down to The Sterling Silver Cloggers versus Beyond Belief Dance Company for a final spot. The cloggers went home and Beyond Belief continued to the next round.

Operamen

Michael Strelo-Smith and Neal E. Boyd, the two big opera singers who have captured America's collective heart early in the competition, were the last to learn their fate. Strelo-Smith got word first and wept when the judges told him he was through to the next round. That led viewers to think Boyd was out, but Piers told him he was still in it and told him to make the most of his opportunity, because it's the biggest one he'll have in his life.

Injured reserve

Since the taping of the audition rounds, Christine from the Russian Bar Trio suffered a serious injury doing a jump and the group had to bow out of the competition. That opened the door for one more act to be chosen from the judges' wild-card selections: singer Donald Braswell III; 11-year-old contortionist Victoria Jacoby; salsa dancers Junior and Emily; street performers Lil Countrie & Page 1NE; sword swallower Dan Meyer; grinder Miss Pussykatt; singer Kyle Rifkin; and popper Xclusive. Viewers can vote at nbc.com/AmericasGotTalent.

Victor Balta is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Philadelphia.