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‘Idol’s’ uneven dozen

Finalists turn in mostly blah performances. By Brian Bellmont

They’ve been touted as “the best top 12 we’ve ever had,” but Tuesday, after performing in stressful, unfamiliar surroundings and enduring a last-second roster shakeup, the “American Idol” finalists proved otherwise.

“I expect it to be on and poppin’ tonight,” Randy Jackson said in the early minutes of the show, “like everybody’s trying to win now.” By the end of the evening, though, barely anyone was on, and very few were poppin’.

When frontrunner Mario Vazquez suddenly withdrew from the competition on March 13, citing “personal issues,” his absence left a space at the front of the pack. But Tuesday, with Vazquez out and recent bumpee Nikko Smith back in, most of the contestants seemed to take the shakeup as an excuse to deliver sub par performances rather than going all out to fill Mario’s spot as one of the top dawgs. Anthony Fedorov flopped. Mikalah Gordon bombed. Lindsey Cardinale fell flat.

What happened? It’s the old joke about outrunning a bear in the woods. You don’t have to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun the other campers you’re with. But now that Mario the hat-wearing bear is otherwise engaged, most of the remaining campers seemed to be strolling lazily through the woods.

Sure, singing for the first time on a bigger stage with a full band in front of a larger audience may have had something to do with the poor-to-middling performances. Or maybe it was the 1960s tunes they had to sing. But unless the mostly mediocre contestants shake it off and really start to impress, they’ll be prime candidates for getting the boot.

Jessica Sierra, 19, Tampa, Fla.: Sierra kicked off a string of unremarkable performances with Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around.” Even big fan Simon struggled to find something nice to say, instead commenting on the “boring, uninspiring song.”Grade: C+Stay or go: Sierra’s humdrum performance was eclipsed by several that were even worse. But even if she had turned in the worst performance of the night, she’s built up plenty of audience goodwill with her earlier knockout work. She’ll be around for a while.

Anwar Robinson, 25, East Orange, N.J.: All the judges seemed stunned at Robinson’s choice of Burt Bacharach’s “A House is Not a Home,” primarily because it didn’t allow the singer to let it rip with his usually soaring voice. Grade: BStay or go: Robinson hardly choked; he just made a safer song choice than the judges — and some of the audience — would have preferred. If he takes all three judges’ advice to heart, next week he’ll deliver the goods.

Mikalah Gordon, 17, Las Vegas: Gordon’s thin rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” might be her swan song. She played well enough to the audience, but her voice just didn’t back up her bubbly stage presence.Grade: D+Simon slam: “I think your confidence exceeded your ability tonight.”Stay or go: The Fran Drescher-esque teenager may have finally worn out her welcome.

Constantine Maroulis, 29, New York: Buoyed by vibrant horns in Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” Maroulis played to his strengths, exuding confidence and likeability. And hitting the killer last note won over anyone who might not have been impressed with the rest of his performance.Grade: B+Simon compliment: “If this was Smoldering Idol, you’d win, hands down.”Stay or go: With one of the few solid performances Tuesday night, Maroulis is in it for the long haul.

Lindsey Cardinale, 20, Ponchatoula, La.: Cardinale’s performance of “Knock on Wood” wasn’t overtly terrible, but it wasn’t exactly good, either. But the judges’ negative reaction may mean we’ve seen the last of her. Randy used her as another example of how “everyone’s really nervous and out of sorts,” and Paula put Cardinale on the spot and asked her how she thought she did. (“You can always do better,” she replied.)Grade: C-Simon slam: “I think 30 million TV sets in America had their volumes turned down simultaneously tonight.”Stay or go: Simon’s dramatic slam may have done more to get her booted than her performance did.

Anthony Fedorov, 19, Trevose, Pa.: The first notes of Fedorov’s bluesy “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” sounded promising, but his performance quickly broke down. Two of the judges used similes to criticize, often a bad sign: Randy likened his performance to a bad hotel singer’s, and Simon equated it with someone getting up to sing at the end of an office Christmas party. Grade: D+Stay or go: Fedorov’s pipes seemed like a perfect match to channel Neil Sedaka, but pitch problems scuttled the song early on. But even though he choked this time, the strength of his previous performances should carry him through.

Nadia Turner, 28, Miami, Fla.: Another Dusty Springfield song, but this time the contestant hit it out of the park. Turner’s confident, sultry delivery of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” prompted Randy to exclaim, seven songs in, “The show finally started tonight!”Grade: ASimon compliment: “In a competition full of hamburgers, you are a steak.”Stay or go: Turner delivered the best performance of the night, hands down.

Bo Bice, 29, Helena, Ala.: Bice tapped into every bit of his rocker sensibility as he ran out into the crowd and covered nearly every inch of the stage as he belted “Spinning Wheel,” earning a standing ovation from Paula and the undying devotion of millions of female fans. Especially compared to his tentative competitors, Bice exuded confidence and experience.Grade: A-Stay or go: Bice’s raw energy and growing status as a rock “Idol” mean he and his soul patch are going to be around for months to come.

Vonzell Solomon, 20, Fort Myers, Fla.: Solomon looked and sounded glamorous as she hit nicely with Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Grade: BStay or go: Simon predicted she’d be gone in only five weeks unless she started straying from the middle of the road in her performance and song choices. That’s plenty of time to start cranking it up a notch.

Scott Savol, 28, Shaker Heights, Ohio: With his spiffy suede duds and a revitalized stage presence, Savol impressed the judges with his rendition of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” It was obvious he was enjoying himself, especially when he took his act off-stage and serenaded the judges.Grade: BStay or go: Savol’s memorable performance and new energy will no doubt keep him from getting booted this week. If he can keep it up, he’ll stick around for at least the next several weeks.

Carrie Underwood, 21, Checotah, Okla.: Underwood gave a somewhat blah performance of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved,” although she did somewhat redeem herself with a whiz-bang ending. Still, certainly not her best work to date.Grade: CSimon compliment: “There are three people in this competition who actually know who they are musically, and you are one of them.”Stay or go: Although Randy and Paula slapped her on the wrist for not taking chances with her songs, Underwood has shown what she’s capable of before, and she likely will again.

Nikko Smith, 22, Town & Country, Mo.: Smith sang the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” an ode to his return from banishment. But his performance seemed slapped together. Grade: C-Stay or go: Smith isn’t really supposed to be there, and his performance showed it. Randy and Paula thought he brought a sense of fun and excitement to the stage, but Simon heartily disagreed. (“I thought you sounded horrible.”) Smith is going to have to tighten things up considerably if he wants to stick around another week.