The third season of “America’s Got Talent” began on a bit of a rowdy note Tuesday night as a string of hopefuls lined up for their chance at $1 million and a Las Vegas show.
Host Jerry Springer announced that the twist to this season’s audition process was that acts would perform for the first time in front of a packed theater. The move turned out to be a bit of a schizophrenic one. At times, it made the night’s sweet and heartwarming moments even greater with the roar of the crowd. Other times, it devolved into a rowdy mess that looked a little more like that other show Springer is known for hosting. As if the judges’ big, red X’s and loud buzzers weren’t embarrassing enough, the addition of a jeering crowd served to add to the discomfort for the performers and the viewers.
The season premiere tended to favor humiliation over inspiration, with a couple of notable exceptions that saved it toward the end.
A comedy of errors
The night began in the New York auditions with a 52-year-old scrap metal worker, Bill. B. Curlee, doing what judge Sharon Osbourne called an impersonation of Elvis Presley doing an impersonation of Tom Jones. He didn’t make it through to the Vegas callbacks, and was followed by a string of equally bad or worse performers who were booed by the crowd and sent home by the judges.
The entire half-hour saw only two acts make it through. A trombonist, Jonathan Arons, danced and “toot-toot”-ed to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” got by on the curiosity factor. Then, Romanian twin sisters who went by the name of Indiggo did a heinous rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The judges acknowledged the singing was terrible, but must have been feeling charitable as they gave the twins a pass so they could have another chance to impress in Vegas.
The first truly heartwarming story of the night came from a couple of violin-playing brothers from Queens who put a modern twist on the classic instrument. They said their dream was to inspire other youngsters to take up the strings. The crowd erupted as the brothers finished and Osbourne predicted they would become the inspiration they hoped to be.
Just kidding around?
In what might ultimately become a bit of a controversial move, the judges handed a Las Vegas pass to Kaitlyn Maher, a 4-year-old singer who took on “Somewhere Out There” from the movie “An American Tail.” She sang sweetly enough, but fans can’t help but wonder where a 4-year-old singer fits into a competition filled with hard-working acts with lifelong dreams hoping to win $1 million. It was a sweet performance, but the judges might have tinged their credibility a bit by moving her on.
The Chicago crowd then let loose on a string of performers, starting with Chay Vang, a 32-year-old factory worker who’d designed his own double-neck guitar. It took him 10 years to build it and as he had trouble plugging in and getting started, the crowded turned against him. That kicked off a montage that highlighted moments when the crowd was all too willing — or, dare we suggest, coerced — to lay into the acts with a chorus of boos and taunts. Terry Christensen, a 45-year-old handyman and songwriter, was derided off stage after getting just the opening lines of his original song out: “In a world where viral engineering has run amok…” For all we know, we could have had the next “Mr. Roboto” in our midst. A montage of more boos followed. It was easily the most uncomfortable moment of the night, chipping away at the spirit of the competition, where even an 80-year-old tap dancer can get turned down by the judges and maintain her dignity, as Mary Bly did earlier in the evening.
The last laugh
Thankfully, there was a heart-warming turn. It began with Jonathan Birkin, who talked about how his talent got him mocked as a child. He later revealed he was a baton twirler, and he turned in a scorching performance, with flames on the ends of his batons — he finished by twirling and juggling three at once. Birkin’s mom, just off stage, beamed with pride as the crowded exploded in support of her boy. David Hasselhoff was fired up, telling Jonathan “all those kids who called you names can shove it. … I’m proud of you for sticking with your dream.” The judges called Birkin’s mom on to the stage and let her soak in some of the praise before making it official that the baton twirler would be going to Vegas.
A cross-dressing Britney Spears impersonator named Derrick Barry, 24, impressed the judges and made The Hoff wonder — at least for a second — if he might be into dudes. Hoff did a double take, at least twice, and praised Barry for a highly entertaining routine. Judge Piers Morgan didn’t care for it, but it didn’t matter as Osbourne and Hasselhoff’s votes put Derrick through.
But the highlight of the night went to Neil E. Boyd, a 32-year-old insurance salesman who grew emotional at the mere mention of his mother and what kinds of sacrifices she made while raising Boyd and his brother alone. He just wanted to make her proud, and every time he thought about what she’d think of his performance, he cried. Boyd brought the crowd to its feet, including the judges, as he blew them away with his powerful voice. Hasselhoff called him the front-runner for the whole competition, while Morgan said he could feel the crowd reacting to the electricity that Boyd produced on stage.
The look on the rotund, slightly awkward singer’s face as he ambled off stage, turning one last time to drink up the loud applause, served as a reminder of what “America’s Got Talent” is all about.
Victor Balta lives in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.