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Very little viva as ‘Talent’ begins Vegas round

Nearly an hour into the Las Vegas callbacks episode of "America's Got Talent" judge Sharon Osbourne said, "I'm bored to death."That pretty much summed it up.The quest to make the Vegas callbacks portion of the competition more interesting took an unfortunate turn when similar acts were pitted against each other in a "WWE Smackdown"-type format that just didn't fit the show's general feel-good flav
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Nearly an hour into the Las Vegas callbacks episode of "America's Got Talent" judge Sharon Osbourne said, "I'm bored to death."

That pretty much summed it up.

The quest to make the Vegas callbacks portion of the competition more interesting took an unfortunate turn when similar acts were pitted against each other in a "WWE Smackdown"-type format that just didn't fit the show's general feel-good flavor. The episode narrowed down the contest's 113 remaining acts to 60, and those will be cut to 40 in a special 90-minute episode on Thursday that will determine which acts will continue to the performance rounds in Hollywood.

The crowds of the earlier audition rounds were gone and the acts performed to en empty theater, with the exception of the three judges seated in front of them. The lack of an audience contributed to a general lack of energy in the city that never sleeps. At one point, Osbourne led the judges backstage to try to light a fire under the competitors, whose lackluster performances led to a long two hours.

The most exciting development of the night came when the judges arrived in Vegas on the night before the auditions. Interviewed on their private jet to the desert, they promised they'd give some shocking news to the performers. They delivered. The revelation: Some of the acts would be sent home from Vegas without getting a chance to perform. The judges spent the night going back over the first-round audition tapes and came up with a list of what appeared to be a few dozen who got an early ticket back from whence they came.

After that news was delivered, with the use of too many dramatic pauses and misleading sentences from the judges that began with, "I'm sorry but..." and ended with, "... you're going to have to stick around longer," it was time to get to the real auditions.

A disjointed montage of variety acts attempted to establish head-to-head rivalries between different performers. The actual performances were difficult to follow as the action kept cutting between what was happening on stage and what other competitors were watching on a screen backstage, and what the judges were saying to each other about the performers.

A fire eater against a grinder girl; a sword swallower against a brick breaker; and a couple of freak show and contortionists were stacked head-to-head without any immediate indication of where they stood against each other. In the end, the brick breaker was the only one who didn't get through.

Nothin' like the real thing

Apropos of the setting, the impressionists were up next, and the focus was on the drag queens: Derek Barry as Britney Spears and Dorae Saunders as Tina Turner. Barry brought a couple of backup dancers for his performance of Britney's "Gimme More." Saunders wasn't lacking the diva attitude, distinguishing his act from Barry's by saying, "Britney's a pop star, Tina's an icon." Despite the build-up, they both got through to the next round, as did early favorite Paul Salos, a 71-year-old Frank Sinatra imitator, and young Elvis impersonator Joseph Hall.

David Martin, an illusionist, got delusional after his magic trick clearly malfunctioned. A false wall accidentally dropped in the middle of his routine, apparently revealing how the trick worked. Martin insisted no mistake was made, but his pleas rang hollow and he went home later. That was the start of a string of lackluster auditions that prompted Sharon and the rest of the judges to go backstage and talk some inspiration back into the contestants.

Opera smackdown!

Some of the early favorites of the new season include an upstart bunch of opera singers, and four of them were slotted against each other in Vegas. First up was Michael Strelo-Smith, a school teacher who was cut from the competition last season before the performance round, who said he would follow his dream of singing regardless of the outcome. He was followed by Donald Braswell II, who channeled Josh Groban earlier this season and won fans with his story of having his vocal cords severed in a car accident. Osbourne, a particularly harsh judge with this group, said the first two singers were average.

Chiquita, a drag queen opera singer who seamlessly shifts between baritone and what sounds like a soprano, was the first to really stand out. In fact, he knocked the socks off of Neal E. Boyd, the opera singer who doubles as an insurance agent from the season premiere. Boyd was up next and did an Italian version of "Unchained Melody" that was solid but not quite as impressive as his first audition. All four of the singers were pushed through to the next round.

Child's play

The kids were up next and if the earlier decisions to send a 4-year-old and 9-year-old into the second round were considered controversial, the judges went one better by putting them both through to the next round. Four-year-old Kaitlin Maher, who was cute enough singing "Somewhere Out There" in the first round, did "When You Wish Upon a Star" in Vegas. Her new friend David Millitello, who sang "Ben" in the first round, did "If We Hold On Together" this time. Both were cute as all get-out, but neither deserved a ticket to the next round.

What's worse is that they took spots that might have been better used by Mia Boostrom, a 15-year-old singer-pianist who was impressive enough to merit staying in the competition. Mia sobbed later when she got the news that she'd be going home.

Grown-up time

The nerves got to Daniel Jens, the Army sergeant who won over the crowd and the judges earlier in the season with his vocals and guitar playing. This time, he ditched the six-string and forgot the words to his song. "He's not a star," Piers said. Despite the flub, he made it through.

R&B singers Bryan Cheatham and Kyle Rifkine vied for what they believed was one spot available. Cheatham was on the mark and Rifkine's voice strained toward the finish. Both made it through.

The adult female singers closed out the evening, with Cat Williams' big voice and big smile getting things started. She considered Queen Emily to be her biggest threat. Both of them brought energetic performance and inspiring stories. Queen Emily stayed, but Cat did not.

Holly Hardin, the Kellie Pickler wannabe, said she just wanted to represent the small-town country girls. Pickler already did that and the judges had seen enough. Hardin went home. Holly Stone, the woman who'd found the daughter she gave up for adoption 18 years later on MySpace, made it through to the next round.

If you blinked...

Amid the flashes and lineups on the stage, these performers were included among those continuing in the competition: Singer-guitarist Jessica Price; urban violinists "Nuttin' But Stringz"; Ukrainian twins "Indiggo"; bluesy pianist-singer Eli Mattison; and The Tapping Dads.

Victor Balta lives in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.