After a summer filled with drag queens, baton twirlers, magicians and impersonators, “America’s Got Talent” is down to a pair of violinists from the subways of New York and four singers.
The winner of the audience vote based on last week’s performances will be named in the one-hour season finale at 9 p.m. ET Oct. 1 on NBC.
This year’s strong crop of five finalists makes it nearly impossible to predict a winner. Last season’s finale included four acts, but only the top two — ventriloquist and eventual winner Terry Fator and singer-guitarist Cas Haley — were real contenders.
The $1 million prize and a headlining spot in Las Vegas are truly up for grabs this time around, depending on the whims of the voters. If uniqueness is what they want, there appears to be one clear choice. But with four very different singers also in the mix, there is no odds-on favorite.
The judges insist Nuttin’ But Stringz — violinist brothers Damien and Tourie Escobar — are the front-runners. But singers Donald Braswell, Eli Mattson, Neal E. Boyd and Queen Emily each have their own compelling stories, along with impressive talents, although Mattson would have to be considered the long shot of the bunch.
America has never seen an act like Nuttin’ But Stringz. The Escobar Brothers have had the judges on their side every step of the way, thanks to their unique brand of hip-hop and rock played on classical violins.
Beyond that, they rock the house. Their high-energy performances transform the “Talent” stage in a way that no other act in the show’s three seasons has matched. And they’ve done it all while playing their own compositions, rather than offering up renditions of pop songs that would be more familiar to viewers.
Many singers have captivated viewers over the past few years with their impressive vocal performances. But when Nuttin’ But Stringz takes the stage, it feels like an event.
“The winner of the show should be the act that has the most unique talent, most creativity, most dynamism,” judge Piers Morgan said after their performance last week. “And, unless I’m wrong — unless one of these singers comes along and does something sensational –—I’m looking at the next winners of ‘America’s Got Talent.’”
Neal E. Boyd: 'Michael Phelps' of the show
Insurance salesman-turned-opera singer Neal E. Boyd became a fan favorite in his first emotional moment on the “Talent” stage. The 32-year-old’s smile and humble personality made him instantly lovable.
Even more endearing, though, was Boyd's recollection of his single mother’s sacrifices, which brought him to tears several times during the competition. But his booming voice proved he was more than just a sob story.
Boyd started his “Talent” journey by wowing the crowd and judges with his performance of “Nessun dorma” from the Puccini opera “Turandot.” He stumbled a bit in the eyes of the judges when he tried to go mainstream, especially with his opera-esque version of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” in the Top 10 round. The singer who once seemed so unbeatable that Morgan called “the Michael Phelps of this competition” returned to his opera roots for the final performance, but will it be too little, too late?
Donald Braswell: Fans gave him another shot
Former professional opera singer Donald Braswell can already claim the title of “America’s choice.” The judges had initially left him out of the top 40, but after an acrobatics performer sustained an injury, fans picked Braswell as the eliminated contestant they wanted back.
Viewers quickly embraced the man who was told he would never speak normally again, let alone sing, after his vocal cords were severed in a bicycling accident 13 years ago.
Now, Braswell has a 20 percent shot at winning the whole deal. The judges have criticized him for not connecting with the audience during his performances, but there’s no denying his strong vocals and his inspiring comeback. The fans saved him once. Will they come through for him again?
Queen Emily: She reigns with confidence
Take everything the “American Idol” playbook has taught you and throw it out the window.
Take on Aretha Franklin? Check. How about Mariah Carey? Check. Whitney Houston? Done it — twice, and with grace and strength that would strike fear in the wannabes from that other competition.
Queen Emily has a hard-luck story of her own. As a young woman, she put her musical ambitions aside to raise two daughters alone. Now in her 40s, she’s hoping America will give her the push she needs to make a career move.
Eli Mattson: Will succeed no matter what
Much like last year’s runner-up Cas Haley, Eli Mattson brings a unique vocal and instrumental style to the competition. Haley did it with a guitar and a funky reggae-inspired groove, while Mattson is a blooming virtuoso on the piano and sings with a country-bluesy vibe.
Judge Sharon Osbourne last week suggested Mattson has serious singer-songwriter cred, although he’s never performed one of his own songs. He’s young. He’s handsome. He’s charming.
But of the five finalists, his overall skill set is the least unique and his story doesn’t scream adversity. He’s talked about struggling to get by while playing to small crowds in bars around the country — a common fate for many young musicians.
Like Haley, the 26-year-old Mattson doesn’t need a win to make the most of his newfound exposure. Since his run on “Talent,” Haley has carved out a niche in the music landscape and there is no reason to believe Mattson couldn’t find similar success, win or lose.
Victor Balta lives in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.