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It’s an inspirational night on ‘American Idol’

Jordin Sparks gives a little something extra on this charity-centered night. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It’s obviously a special night on “American Idol” when Simon can say, “This is quite literally hell on earth,” without having it just be an exaggerated reaction to a particularly poor vocal effort.

Tuesday marked the first day of the “Idol Gives Back” week. In addition to the six finalists’ performances, the show showed vignettes of the judges and Ryan Seacrest visiting areas of poverty both in Africa and the United States. On this night, all they were asking for is increased viewer votes, since each one brings a 10 cent donation from NewsCorp. Though that doesn’t seem like a ton of cash, it could lead to a $5 million donation if there are 50 million votes, meaning a particularly fast texter could bring in 20 bucks to help fight hunger.

The night was special enough to get Simon Cowell to dress in white instead of his usual black, and to have Ryan open the show by saying “The calls you make will not only save your favorite contestants (dramatic pause) — they will also save lives.” It was not, however, special enough to get Ryan to shave.

With the theme centering on inspirational songs, the judges seemed affected by the feel-good nature of the evening and were lavish with praise and lukewarm with criticism. Jordin Sparks stole the show with a strong finale, after Melinda Doolittle offered her usual excellent effort earlier in the hour. LaKisha Jones appears to be in the most danger of being sent home, though it wouldn’t be a shocker to see any of the three remaining men go instead.

Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake, Va.: Richardson kicked things off with “Change the World” by Eric Clapton.  Randy Jackson loved it and said Richardson was in it to win it. Even Simon enjoyed it. That may mean that the pre-show sentiment was coloring their judgment — it was fine vocally, but thin and understated even for a song as soft as this one. Richardson has gone about as far as talent alone can take him; if he makes it much further it will be because his looks and personality are capturing attention.Grade: B-Stay or Go? Going first won’t do Richardson any favors. He’ll probably find himself in the bottom three.

Melinda Doolittle, 29, Brentwood, Tenn.: Doolittle sang “There Will Come a Day,” by Faith Hill. In four weeks, there likely will come a day when she’ll be crowned the Season 6 winner. In the meantime, she came through with her usual excellent effort. All the judges loved it, because she took an established song and made it her own. Simon called it “a vocal master class,” and he was exactly right.Grade: A+Stay or Go? Doolittle set the bar high originally, but still gets better every week. She’s safe.

Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell, Wash.: Was Blake Lewis really a beatboxer at the auditions? That seems like years ago for Lewis, who’s been gimmick-free for weeks now and was so again in his performance of “Imagine” by John Lennon. In any other week, it would have been too maudlin, but it fit with the show’s theme and he did project sincerity. Still, Lewis might want to lay off the sentimental crooning in the future and show a little bit of that edge again soon.Grade: B-Stay or Go? Lewis was in the bottom three last week, and may be there again this time around.

LaKisha Jones, 27, Fort Meade, Md.: For the second week in a row and third time this season, Jones chose to emulate a former “Idol” contestant.  Fantasia proved to be a better model than last week’s choice of Carrie Underwood, and Jones did fine with “I Believe.”  The judges didn’t like it much, preferring Fantasia’s version, but it was a definite improvement over her last performance. The problem for her may be that everyone else was better this week as well.Grade: B-Stay or Go? Considering Jones was in the bottom two last week, she’s in grave danger.

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Jordin Sparks, 17, Glendale, Ariz.:  Sparks closed the show with the classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and was good enough to cement her status as the finalist most likely to upset Doolittle. Randy called it one of the best vocals in the six seasons of the show, and Simon thought she could have a hit record with it. It was the best performance of the season from a teenager who just keeps getting better as the weeks go on.Grade: A+Stay or Go? Sparks should be back next week.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.