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‘Idol’ night one puts focus on the positive

“Idol” gave the top singers a little more airtime on Tuesday, and Philadelphia’s legendary brotherly love seemed to rub off on Paula, Randy and even Simon.
/ Source: contributor

As the seventh season of “American Idol” kicked off with a two-hour recap of the Philadelphia auditions, producers got their first chance to prove that the mistakes of last season would not be repeated. Among other tweaks, viewers were promised more focus on the talented singers in the audition shows to develop the rooting interests that draw an audience and wreak havoc with phone traffic.

So far, so good.

“Idol” gave the top singers a little more airtime on Tuesday, beginning with the first singer of the season. Joey Catalano came through the door with an inspirational story about how he’d lost more than 200 pounds.

The result? The 19-year-old got the season’s first golden ticket and the first dumb Simon Cowell joke of the season (“He looks hungry”).

Catalano was far from the biggest talent in Philly, and other stories scored much higher on the tearjerker meter.

‘It’s not about fame for me’Angela Martin, a 26-year-old from Chicago, has a 2-year-old daughter, Jessica, with Rett Syndrome. The condition often brings with it seizures, cognitive impairment, and lack of verbal skills and mobility. Martin came to the auditions with a large crew of supporters, who talked about how they all pitched in to help raise Jessica and considered her like a daughter.

The contestant told the cameras, “It’s not about fame for me, it’s about getting her the best care and the best therapies, because the doctors told me my baby was never gonna walk or talk, and I’m gonna get that for her.” But when Simon asked her to say something interesting about herself, she mentioned that she was in a band that performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and didn’t speak of her daughter at all.

The judges probably could have guessed the band thing after they saw her sing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” But whether her decision was a deliberate attempt to not let her daughter’s status influence the judges’ decision or a really skewed sense of what they would find important, she did well enough to advance to Hollywood with only the warning that she needed to “de-wedding-ize.”

Kristy Lee Cook didn’t have that kind of challenge, but the 23-year-old from Selma, Ore., did have a little bit of Carrie Underwood small-town America going for her — except that she could easily beat Underwood in a barroom brawl. Cook trains for cage fighting, but she also lives in a log cabin, raises horses, and sold her barrel horse to raise the money to get to tryouts.

At least the animal was sold for a good cause, as Cook’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” was among the best in Philadelphia and easily earned her a ticket onward. “My only advice coming back is that you have to come back with 10 to 20 percent more confidence,” Simon said.

‘I want to be a legend’Chris Watson was probably the best of the men, as the 20-year-old from Delaware won the judges over by singing Uncle Kracker’s “Follow Me.” 

“I want to be a legend,” he said. The “Idol” brass would settle for him just breaking the million-album barrier in record sales if he wins, since lately that’s been akin to Mount Everest for the show’s champions.

Brooke White played the wholesome card, as a nanny for twin 1-year-old girls, who said she’s never seen an R-rated movie.

“I like you. There’s something sort of ... pure,” judge Randy Jackson said, after hearing her sing. No kidding. She made it to Hollywood, where she hopes to become the first to leave the city as pure as when she arrived. 

Melanie Nyema sang backup for Taylor Hicks. That wouldn’t seem like a recipe for stardom, especially since Hicks himself is looking for a record deal these days. Her version of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” didn’t wow Simon, but impressed the others enough to get her through.

Beth Stalker, Jonathan Baines and Jose Candelaria were also among the 29 from Philly to advance. But not many showed the poise of Junot Joyner. When told by Simon, “you have a really good voice,” Joyner replied, “Good enough for Hollywood?”

It was.

Brotherly loveThe pre-show media publicity made it sound like the judges would be even meaner this season, and odds are good that this will eventually be the case. But the City of Brotherly Love seemed to bring out a kinder, gentler trio.

Take the case of Temptress Browne.

The 16-year-old Philly native plays football and dreams of being a singer, but also helps take care of her sick mother. “My mother is rather ill and I’m doing this for her,” she said. Sadly, her audition quickly made it clear that she had no chance at all of making it out of the jury room.

However, in a town that takes pride in the stories about its toughness, the judges were so solicitous in their criticism that Browne got more praise than many who advanced. “You are a sweetheart. I like you. And you’re a nice person,” Simon said. “And you took on one of the biggest songs in the world.” 

Paula Abdul asked if she could give Browne a hug, and the inevitable result was the entire group hugging each other on stage and then walking out with Browne to gently give her mother the bad news. It was what passes for a Hallmark Moment on the show.

Let the derision commence
Of course, this wouldn’t be “Idol” without the ritual mocking of the delusional and the untalented, and the show provided that as well.

Udgeet Sampat butchered “My Way,” and eagerly awaited his feedback.

“Did you actually think you had any chance of winning?” Simon asked.


“Well, you’re not.”

Alexis Cohen, a 23-year-old from Allentown studying to be a vet, understatingly said, “I march to the beat of a different drummer.”

No kidding.

Cohen’s version of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” didn’t wow the judges, with Simon saying, “It was all a bit possessed for me, like she’s channeling the voices.” Still, the judges all said she could find success in a ’70s cover band. It was only after she left the room that Simon compared her looks to Willem Dafoe when he played the Green Goblin in the “Spider-Man” movies.

But Cohen was not happy. “He’s a big fat bad word,” she said of Simon, before actually saying that bad word. “I will leave with my dignity,” she promised. And then she flipped off the cameras and ranted her way home.

Christina Tolisano tried her best to match Cohen’s diatribe. The Princess Leia blamed her exit on her looks.

“They all look the same and sound the same,” she said on her cell phone, as the producers showed a montage of the celebrating contestants. “They need more diversity out there. They need something different for this show, and they’re not allowing it.”

If she had only come dressed as Queen Amidala ...

Too old and too badThe city also validated the show’s decision to keep the upper end of the age limit at 28.

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Somehow, 39-year-old Milo Turk was allowed to perform and sang an original, “No Sex Allowed.” Though too old for the contest, perhaps he could wind up writing the winning single for this year’s winner.

Paul Marturano won’t get that chance. The 32-year-old wrote a love song and dedicated it to Paula. With lyrics like “I broke into her house, when she wasn’t there / Took off all my clothes and tried on her underwear,” he’s a good bet to be in jail by the time the season finale rolls around.

Tour guide James Lewis sang “Go Down Moses” like he was having a hard time staying awake, and the judges cracked up. But even then, Paula apologized for laughing.

But the award for the most painful exit went to Ben Haar. The 27-year-old showed up in a cape, and underneath was a costume that revealed way too much chest hair. Haar was told to wax his chest hair and come back. He did, but sang just one note before getting the boot.

Even when they’re in a good mood, the judges’ tolerance has limits.