Week two of ABC’s “American Idol” reboot found judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie loosening up as a trio, sometimes at the expense of the “babysitter” at the table: Richie. The “All Night Long” singer was on the receiving end of several whoopee cushion pranks — and one collapsed chair — as Perry and Bryan laughed on.
Still, Richie signed on to mentor and judge, and that he did to great effect on Sunday night’s (March 18) episode. Among the hopefuls: a karaoke singer, a trick horse rider, a boy that hopped on a Greyhound bus on a whim, a nanny, a young opera singer newly relocated to Los Angeles, a man who went into the foster care system at a young age, and a dynamite special education teacher.
Richie was impressive in how he doled out advice, whether it be telling a contestant that it is wise to put everything into the first song of a show, or advising another that he needs another year and a half, and how conviction is so important to winning over an audience. As the resident voice of reason, Richie is never cruel and quite helpful as he approaches vocalists during their auditions. It’s as if he is itching to start the job before the kids even get to Hollywood. And while he nearly wandered into Randy Jackson territory — name-dropping Michael Jackson, Prince, or his past with The Commodores (the latter hilariously parodied by Perry) — it doesn’t feel like bragging.
Yes, there were a few joke auditions. Among them: Tyler “Couger” Gordon with a purported six-octave range; and Ryan Zamo’s massacre of Sara Barelleis’ “Gravity,” which seemed more of a way for the aspiring organic skincare product pusher to advertise his product than win a singing contest. Bryan saw right through him, telling him skincare was more his future, while Perry called it the “worst rendition” of the song she ever heard. But there were plenty of contenders in Perry’s expanding list of “Top 10” candidates to root for, too.
The episode, which opened with the three judges in a carpool karaoke-like moment singing along to Richie’s “Easy,” took us to auditions in Georgia, Nashville, Los Angeles and New York.
Among the first to go through to Hollywood: Red-haired 20-year-old Florida resident Crystal Alicea (pictured above), whose singing career so far was limited to karaoke. “You’ve got an ‘It’ factor,” said Perry after her performance of Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down. “I would totally follow you on Instagram.”
Alicea’s story of being bullied over weight issues, coupled with her supportive boyfriend (and healthy doses of teary drama), was enough to put her over the top with Richie, who told her, “You are likeable… The future is yours.”
Other contestants who vowed to make a strong impression followed: Texan Kristyn Harris yodeled her way to an improbable Golden Ticket (Perry isn’t convinced that her act is right for “Idol,” despite joining in for a dance); Johnny Brenns, an 18-year old who hopped a bus on a whim without his parent’s knowledge, snagged a ticket on the strength of an original song. After Bryan asked Brenns to “dig in” a little more with a different song,” Richie isn’t convinced he is ready for competition. Although he is right, he is overruled.
It isn’t all amateurs auditioning. As the bus rolls into Los Angeles, a former contestant on “The Voice,” 22-year old Ricky Manning (season 7, team Gwen Stefani) strolls in with a heartfelt original song about being lonely in the City of Angels, touching Perry and earning easy passage to Hollywood.
Still, while Los Angeles is populated with former reality contestants — and lots of singers with subpar original compositions — 26-year-old Modesto, California resident Effie Passaro earns a standing ovation and the ultimate compliment from Richie, who calls her a “patriot missile.” Originals can go either way in Hollywood. Some might recall the impressive season 12 finalist Angie Miller, but Passaro can be a fierce competitor if she reins it in a little.
Johnny White, an 18-year-old from Hickory, North Carolina, has a lot of potential and a sad back story of being born to a drug-addicted mother and a father in jail. His audition, singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World, “ is strong (thanks to his vocal teacher, Mrs. Finley), but Richie decides he needs a little lesson in restraint. “Every time you feel like you want to explode, wait.” This is good advice to take to Hollywood, as White may not end up the top ten contender Perry predicts him to be.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson, an 18-year old baritone who does a mean imitation of Bryan, sailed through to Hollywood, as did 17-year old nanny Shannon O’ Hare (this season’s answer to season 7 alum Brooke White), who Richie deems a major threat after hearing her power away at “When We Were Young” by Adele.
But there is still serious competition ahead with soulful rocker Amelia Hammer Harris, whose father, Jack Hammer, wrote “Great Balls of Fire” and “Yakety Yak.” Her attack on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” grabs the ear of Richie (The Commodores opened for The Stones) and Perry is shocked that at 26, success still has eluded Harris.
Twins are never a sure bet on “Idol,” and even though Julian and Milo Sposato both went through with their musical duet of Bruno Mars’ “Runaway Baby,” it feels more like a Battle Round on The Voice, with Julian emerging the victor leaving Milo open for the steal. But this is “Idol,” and there won’t be a repeat of this twofer Hollywood. Only one will move forward. The drama is unfolding already.
At 27, Les Greene from Baltimore is among the older contestants, and with the tickets already doled out to many talented teens, he has a lot to prove. His audition is raw as he practically screams the lyrics to “A Change is Gonna Come.” Bryan’s take: “You’re a Ferrari… you’re rugged,” and wonders if he can handle singing five nights a week on a potential “Idol” tour. Perry agrees, but Greene gets three “yes” votes.
Finally, 19-year old special education teacher Maddie Zahmes, accompanied by her best friend Marcus, who has Down’s Syndrome, strapped on a guitar and made a serious run for the the top 12 with an inspired version of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules.” Not only was this the most memorable audition thus far, Zahmes phrasing of the song and fearless cover of Perry’s “Firework” showed serious chops.
Auditions continue Monday night on ABC.
Subscribe to Variety Newsletters and Email Alerts!