The semifinal round of America's Got Talent
season 9 has finally arrived, with hundreds of auditioning acts whittled down to the final 24. And somewhere in the group is a million-dollar act perhaps worth his, her or its own place under the massive big top that is Sin City.
But before the bright lights of Vegas beckon, these performers must first brave the elements and the competition at Radio City Music Hall to survive at least one more week in the quest for fame, fortune and, you know, not having to head to the office in a monkey suit every Monday through Friday. Ahhhh, the American dream.
So is that awesome needle in a whole pile of kinda-good needles about to hit the stage tonight? We shall find out soon enough.
Here is the illustrious group you will be choosing from: Aerial Animation, Andrey Moraru, Bad Boys of Ballet, Dan Naturman, David and Leeman, Emily West, Flight Crew Jump Rope, Mara Justine, Miguel Dakota, Mike Super, Paul Ieti and Sons of Serendip.
Wild Wild Cards
You may notice that three of the four wildcards are in this mix, and before we get to the live performances, I must first address the judges' controversial choices. I also wish to criticize Nick Cannon for failing to mention that the selections were going to be revealed on Twiitter, because I'm pretty sure he could've dropped that nugget at the end of the results show (or at least before I did my Top 24 rankings slideshow with my projected picks AND mapped out an entire article narrowing down the deserving wildcard choices from the 28 available acts, which obviously had to be scrapped).
Of the four I was projecting, I was spot on with Flight Crew Jump Rope (the only act truly shafted in the quarterfinal round) and Wendy Liebman (a mistake, but it balances out the only other remaining comedian, Dan Naturman). Mike Super and
hopefully not Desmond were on the radar, but I was surprised at their inclusion over a guy like Jonatan Riguelme (who Howard called the first Rolla Bolla act worthy of being in the finals).
Then Mel B. pulled The Bad Boys of Ballet totally out of left field, as they weren't even the best of the eliminated dance groups to perform that night. My guess was that Mel B. would have been the one to bring back Flight Crew, as she was the only judge who picked them over Baila Conmigo, Howard would go with Riquelme, Howie would save the comedienne and Heidi would bring back piano boy wonder Adrian Romoff.
My just-misses were Nina Burri (a favorite who had the second-highest percentage of "Eliminated act I want to see again" poll votes after Flight Crew, but I just couldn't see any judges picking her), Acte II and The Willis Clan, so the last two wildcards came as a bit of a shock. But it is what it is, and these are the four acts that get a second chance. They didn't want to put the Liebs up head to head with the Naturman, so her act lives to die another week.
If I had to made a prediction on the five to watch, I'm going with Aerial Animation, Andrey Moraru, Emily West, Miguel Dakota and Sons of Serendip. Now let's see who lives up to the hype.
Who are you most excited to see again? And who are your preliminary picks as favorites to make it out of this group? Remember, the blog is live, so let's keep the conversation going, if only so Desmond doesn't have to chime in. Let's get to it!
The Live Blog's Jumping-Off Point
Apparently, they're also introducing something call the Instant Save, which will allow voters at home to instantly bring someone back. Details on that to come. But first, it's Nick Cannon in what appears to be a much more traditional tuxedo, outside of the sparkly purple "There's no place like pimp home" loafers.
The judges first reveal their wildcards, which we already know. But the acts also react, and first up is Heidi's choice: Flight Crew Jump Rope They were shocked when Howard heaped praise on their flawless performance before sending them home, so they spent all week putting together a one-of-a-kind routine to top all other routines. And we're jumping right in. Get it?
It's pretty darn spectacular, and while it's probably not flawless, they pull off some stunts that are as mind-boggling as anything the magicians have done. It's just as much fun as it was last time, when they deserved to go through, and I still love them even though this is probably the last time we see them. Especially considering they had to go first.
Heidi is proud to have brought them back, and Mel B. is fired up and says that's a heck of a way to kick off the show. Howie disagrees, calling it more of the same, and he points out the mistakes. Howard feels bad that America didn't vote for them before (even though they may have, but the judges made the final decision between fifth and sixth), and he says that it's because even new tricks have the same old feel. So they're a victim of always seeming to be the warmup act for the headliner.
Mara Justine Gets a Do-Over
The survival of this young singer also came down to the judges, who chose Mara's potential over Acte II's sub-par performance. She's my hometown girl, so I'm pulling for her, but she had some choices to make about her on-stage persona leading up to this. If she goes too pop, like she did last time, I think it will come back to haunt her.
It certainly appears that she took my advice from my rankings because she's out there by herself, trying to keep her voice reined in. She's singing Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway," and while there are certainly high points that show off her immense potential, the arrangement is a mess. She's got the talent, but this one is just too all over the place. Her runs are more abrasive than pleasing, and that's doesn't bode well for her.
Howie got to his feet during the song, and he praises her for singing ahead of her years. He begs America to vote for her, before Howard calls it a redeeming performance and dubs this one the Superman performance compared to last time's Clark Kent. Mel B. loved the arrangement and calls her a proper artist, while Heidi calls it a breakout performance. Look, I'm a fan of little Mara, but I hope the judges were just trying to be nice. Because Simon Cowell and even Harry Connick, Jr., would have had a very different take on that.
Mel B.'s Bad Bad Boy Save
Mel praises the technique of these once-eliminated ballerinas, whom she brought back immediately after last week's show. So to thank her, they're planning a performance that gets America interested in ballet and them. They're prepping for a rock and roll ballet because they ARE the Bad Boys of Ballet.
While they do amp up the rocking out and the crazy facial expressions while dancing to "Are You Gonna Go My Way," it's really hard to buy them as bad boys when they're pirouetting like that. It's like being intimidated by the gang members in West Side Story. It's the best they can be, and it's much better than most similar acts, but like last time, it doesn't keep me wanting more.
Mel B. calls it seamless and demands that America vote. Howard calls them sexy and fun to watch, but he doesn't like how the only chick in the group left the stage for half the performance. She's the entire act, the gimmick, he says, and she needs to be there or at least come back out with something cooler than a pair of tight shorts.
Heidi calls it ballet in a new and modern way that we've never seen, and she doesn't mind that the girl left to change her shoes. Howie calls them all hot backup dancers, but he doesn't think it's a million dollar act.
Oh, and she was only off-stage for two counts of eight, HOWARD. And she's no gimmick.
The Night of a Thousand Singers Screeches On
Paul Ieti is next up on stage, and he never thought he'd get a chance to do what he loves while he was simply an Army crooner serving in Afghanistan. He's smart because he tugs at America's heartstrings by discussing the constant and real threat of not making it home while serving our nation abroad, and that makes him all the more grateful and dedicated to putting on a stellar show.
His voice starts cracking on the opening notes of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," and his nerves are clearly affecting him. His voice soars when he gets to belt out and hold some major notes, but the lower-register stuff isn't good. It's a shame because the ability is there.
Heidi doesn't think it was his best vocal performance, Mel B. calls it off and could sense his self-doubt, Howie says Mara did better and Howard calls him a hero but says the story and the performance must be separated. He loved the big notes but calls the lower-register stuff a disaster. Paul is humble and gracious and likable, and his backstory still might be enough to get him through. But it shouldn't be.
Howie's Wildcard is a Dazzler, Desmond is Not
Howie brought back "mystifier" Mike Super, after Howard chose AcroArmy over him. It's interesting that all these wildcards were eliminated via the judges' decisions, and I wonder if all three were actually the fifth-place vote-getters of their respective shows.
Mike is contained in a plexiglass chamber, and he's taking Howard's advice and "losing" Desmond for this trick. Those in the spirit world apparently cannot advance through Latin writing. He has the judges shuffle up some random cards while he's concealed under a red cloth. The cards are dropped into a bag, and Howard chooses one at random. It's a triangle.
The red cloth drops, and there's no one under it. Then a long ribbon shoots from the stage and lands on the other side of the theater, where Mike catches it and reveals that he and all the audience members in between have triangles on their hands.
Howie pats himself on the back for the wildcard pick, Mel B. is shocked and has no idea how he did it, Howard praises the loss of Desmond and calls it a great magic and Heidi thought the trick was out of the box and likable.
Am I the only one who wasn't that impressed with it? He had tons of time to make it to the back of the theater, and accurately guessing a triangle when you have your assistant bring out the bag that collects the cards is just too fishy for me. It wasn't terrible, but I don't put it on par with the stuff Mat Franco has done. It just seems like something any competent magician can do. But maybe that's just me.
Andrey Moraru Does It Again
Andrey is strong and flexible, and he focuses on being in the right state of mind every time he performs. He wasn't good at school as a youngster, and he started to lose his identity before discovering the circus. He is a loner by nature, but when he's on stage, he is bearing his soul and is never alone. This is his chance to share his heart with the world, and I like the approach to his introduction.
His grace, strength and poise is evident throughout another stellar performance, but as I feared, it looks strikingly similar to the last one. His ability to switch positions while balancing on one hand is unmatched, and I think he was trying to something special at the end but was unable to pull it off. So his closing showstopper doesn't quite work out.
Howie thinks Andrey showed a little bit of everything and excelled at all of it, while Howard doesn't care if it's the same thing week in and week out, he's still entertained and wants America to vote. Heidi likens him to a human pretzel and would bend over backwards to get him to the finals, and Mel B. points out the little hiccups just so she can convey that they don't matter or detract from how mesmerizing he is.
A Heartthrob with a Voice to Match
Playing music for a living has always been Miguel Dakota's dream, but being in the semifinals tops all of it. And in between these performances, he was back home in Colorado chopping down trees. Probably shirtless. As all the dreamboats do. Take it easy, Catherine, he's way too young for you.
Miguel is fighting to support his family, and it all comes down to the next 90 seconds. I'm immediately drawn in by his song choice -- The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" -- which is a great rock-out song. He's spot-on and engaging, as usual, even tossing his beanie halfway through. My only criticism is that the band is a bit distracting again, and the guitar isn't quite as kick-ass as it needed to be, especially on a riff that is supposed to hit as hard as this one.
Howard loves his hair, charisma and enthusiasm, but he suspects a paying crowd would've slept through that one. He recommends that Miguel go to show after show and just tank until he figures out how to make a connection with the song. Heidi dubs Miguel America's next heartthrob, Howie thinks he could win the whole thing and Mel B. compares him to Sam Smith.
Sons of Serendip Give Us the Goosebumps
While these guys tell the story of how they came together by accident, their rendition of "Somewhere Only We Know" is playing in the background, and I get goosebumps all over again. I love these guys, and I also find it endearing that they are clearly reading several parts of their introduction.
This time, it's Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child," and for the first time, I hear a few notes that aren't perfect. But once they start harmonizing and hitting the big notes, I'm on a one-way train to chillsville. It's not their absolute best, and that could be trouble with so many singers around. But I still think their potential is nearly unmatched outside of Emily West, which is kind of unfair considering she is a former professional.
Heidi tells them they have nothing to worry about, while Mel praises them for again taking a popular song and making it their own. Howie calls them amazing and the most talented, but he worries they could lose votes to Miguel's popularity and virility. Howard thinks they are fantastic but says the name is terrible. Nick shortens it to SOS.
We're two-thirds of the way through, and you have to think the judges think very highly of the four remaining acts. Seems like they're trying to give a little boost to Dan Naturman and David and Leeman.
David and Leeman Take a Risk
They infuse some comedy into their intro, starting out with some daydreaming about winning the whole thing. One of them has even been recognized four times, and they're like husband and wife now with how well they know each other. They are upset that Heidi didn't stand up for them last time, so they're gearing the entire trick towards her.
They start off by buzzing themselves with everyone's buzzer but Heidi's, and they are searching for that fourth X in one of five paper bags. It just happens to be printed on the bottom of an upright nail that if slammed down upon will impale the slammer's hand. They make some comical jokes about getting off and the D-bag (the bags are lettered A through E), before each judge gets to pick a bag to smash. Naturally, they pick the four that don't have a spike, and the unsmashed bag is revealed to contain it.
Mel loved it from start to finish, Howie liked it, Howard is a fan of their delivery and Heidi finds the back and forth entertaining. I'm fairly certain all the bags were empty until the end, but it was still fun to watch. These guys are great showmen, and the banter was better than the trick.
Dan Naturman Delivers an Unbelievable Set
Not because it's great, just because he's so surprised to still be in the competition. He's gained some confidence and even tried speed dating, but he still hasn't met that special someone. He points out that a comedian has never won AGT and wonders if he'll be the first. "Probably not," he says, "But I'm hopeful."
It starts out a bit rough, but he works in a few quality zingers -- about being gay or German, mostly. I think he lost some of the audience in the process, with everyone trying to remember if Heidi is German or not instead of focusing on the rest of the set.
Heidi is impressed that he could offend everyone at the same time, and she's not a fan. Mel thought it was funnier at the end, which Howie chastises her for. He thinks America should "go Naturman," and that we'll be quoting him tomorrow. We won't. Howard loves him and his ease on stage as well. Nick says the Twitterverse has deemed the judges "cranky."
Aerial Animation Takes Us on a Journey
Not to be confused with Blue Journey taking us on an aerial animation, and this chick loses herself when she interacts with her fantastic background projections. She's got the gorgeous visuals, but the aerials aren't the greatest. Every improvement she makes there will carry her further along into the competition.
She again picks up the story where the last one left off, riding a horse that sprouts wings and carries her into the sky before some mean ducks kick her off a cloud and send her tumbling back to earth. She hitches a ride back up on some balloons, and a guy on stage lifts her up while an old mythical god shoots arrows at her. Then she gets back up on the silk and plays with the moon.
Mel B. felt the performance was slow, and that the ideas were there but the delivery wasn't. She found it disjointed and wanted her to rely less on the lift guy. Heidi agrees and feels she took a step back, while Howard disagrees with both and found it insanely smart. He thinks everything is fantastic. Howie, conversely and similarly, agrees with everyone. He liked that she experimented, but he didn't think there was enough action in the background.
I tend to agree with the women, as this one just didn't enthrall me like the others. There weren't even that many aerials, which, after noting that it's not her strong point, left me wanting to see her at least try something.
Emily West Gets the Pimp Spot
She was number one in my Top 24 rankings, and this is not her first time in the pimp spot. She's knocked it out of the park with her last two performances, but the real question is if she can continue improving to complete her riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches story. She's had a record contract that she lost, at least one song on a chart and a duet with a country superstar. She also returned to her regular life after the quartfinals, cleaning houses and getting her credit card rejected. And now, after 15 years of struggle, she can see her dreams again.
It's Queen's "Who Wants to Live Forever," and, damn, can this girl perform the hell out a song. It's goosebumps galore, and there's nothing else to say. I'm just going to be quiet and enjoy it.
Heidi appreciates her voice and old-school Hollywood glamour, and she's developed a bit of a lady crush. Mel B. was wondering how Emily could top her last performance, and then she went out and did it. Howie sums it up with two words, seasoned and iconic, and he says everyone else needs to strive to the bar that Emily has set. Howard calls her a true million-dollar act.
The first group of semifinal performances are in the books, and while several of them were commendable, I don't think it's debatable that the night belonged, yet again, to Emily West. The rest of the crowd is a bit tougher to predict, though I think Paul Ieti, Mara Justine, The Bad Boys of Ballet and Dan Naturman are easy cuts.
The middle is muddled, but I think we may have seen the last of Mike Super and Aerial Animation. That leaves four of Flight Crew Jump Rope, Andrey Moraru, Miguel Dakota, David and Leeman and Sons of Serendip to join Ms. West.
For now, my money is on Flight Crew being the odd one out, but we also have to contend with the Snapple Save, which apparently involves America voting live in real time, a la Rising Star, on one act to keep around. So who knows what will happen?
Who were your favorites, and who do you think is destined for the next round? Who came up short, and which acts did you have high hopes for that just didn't deliver? We'll find out who stays and who goes Wednesday night, along with being treated to a performance by uber-hottie Ariana Grande. That alone is worth the price of admission. You know, just one less problem...
You can watch America's Got Talent every Tuesday and Wednesday night at 9pm on NBC.
(Image and videos courtesy of NBC)