And then there were 51.

With the rigors of Hollywood Week behind them, the surviving golden ticket recipients are headed back to the Dolby Theater to perform in front of a live studio audience for the first time. It’s all part of the American Idol showcase round, which will see more than half of the remaining singers eliminated in determining our Season 15 Top 24.

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Quantity Vs. Quality

On the surface, it would appear that there are 34 female contestants and just 17 male which proves Idol reallllllyyyy hopes to bookend Kelly Clarkson with another female winner. But on the flip side, with just five guys needing to be eliminated compared with 22 gals for an evenly-split Top 24, it will be much easier for the dudes to stand out.

The obvious downside of so many performances and final judgments crammed into a two-hour show is that there’s simply no way we’ll get to see everyone, which means our viewing experience is once again at the discretion of those who already know the results. And expect it to be catered as such.

But on the bright side, this is sure to be the last of the cherry-picked performance episodes. So from here on out, we can make our own judgments based on all the available information.

The presence of the crowd is the X factor, because it separates those who are energized by a live audience from anyone lacking star power. Stage presence can sometimes compensate for a poor performance, as amazing vocals can make up for the mundane. Having both can produce a moment, while too little of either usually signals the end of the line.

Showcase Me Some Talent

With the judges watching from the balcony high above, Stephany Negrete is the first singer featured. We’ve known for weeks that she has the look, and it’s no surprise that she’s very comfortable in front of a crowd. Her “Girl on Fire” is vocally fine, if not a bit overdone, but she’s a natural with people staring at her. The episode is actually taking place the day after the showcase, when the performers walk the Green Mile to learn their fates, and it’s welcome to the Top 24 for Stephany.

Shelbie Z. rocks the live audience with a rip-roaring “Barracuda,” and she gets good news as well. It’s gotta be tough for the 49 other singers waiting around to learn that there’s already only 22 spots left.

A Rough Patch

Michelle Marie has been on the verge since the beginning, with her talent lurking just outside the Top 30 or so. Her “Little Toy Guns” has some serious pitch issues with flashes of brilliance, but unfortunately, not everyone can move on. Back to the family trailer…

Colette Lush struggled during her Hollywood solo, prompting Harry to question her confidence. And that carries through to a subpar “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” which lacks any sort of connection. The judges wish her the best. 

Jessica Cabral, who turned in the second best audition of the season in my rankings, is also out. It’s a huge shock, considering her near perfection up to this point and especially since we don’t get to hear her showcase (She apparently sang Faith Hill’s “Breathe”). 

Also cut are Jessica Clark, Ameet Kanon and Terrian. Ameet was the best of the three in the audition round, but none of these are a big surprise. 

Onto the Guys

MacKenzie Bourg has been a standout all season and wowed the judges with an original song during the solo round. For the showcase, he delivers a goose bump-worthy acoustic rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love.” He’s a lock, and we’ll be seeing more of him in the Top 24.

Trent Harmon is still struggling with the mono that plagued him during Hollywood Week. He dances around the stage wearing a funny red hat while belting out Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” If this is how great the guy is when he’s sick, I can’t wait to see what he’ll do when he’s healthy. He’s a unanimous pick by the judges. 

Contenders or Pretenders?

Then it’s time for some rapid-fire advancement, as Jenna Renae, Adam Lasher, James VIII and Kory Wheeler all join the Top 24. We haven’t heard from Carlos Santana’s nephew since his audition, so I can’t comment on Adam’s inclusion other than to say he was radio ready last season. But I’m a bit surprised at James VIII as I’ve never been a fan.

Jevene Rose Mitchell, better known as the off-the-grid girl, put a unique take on “Ring of Fire” in the showcase. It’s definitely her best so far, but it doesn’t change any of the things I’ve said about her this season. She’s not an American Idol, but she’ll have to wait a few more weeks to find that out.  

Back on Top

CJ Johnson has been playing small-time gigs for years, which gives him a poise that most of the Top 51 lacks. And it comes through on his rendition of “Parachute.” The experience pays off again, and CJ is sticking around. 

Amelia Eisenhauer, a.k.a. the redhead who auditioned with the sword, showcases the audience with a solid “New York State of Mind” that she accompanies on her violin. The potential is nice, though I’m not sure why she seems so happy to singing what I think is more of a soulful song. It takes away from the connection, but she’ll have another opportunity to be emotional.

Lee Jean, another youngster, is still out of control with his runs on “Make it Rain,” to the point where it sounds like he’s auto-tuning himself. But he’s a raw little heartthrob in the making, and his journey will continue. J-Lo yells at him for showing his immaturity by telling the audience to pipe down on two separate occasions. 

We are now halfway to our Top 24, with 21 cuts left to make.

Avalon Young insists that her frumpy look doesn’t detract from how she sounds, and she’s right in her stellar showcase performance of “Yo (Excuse Me Miss).” She oozes stage presence, much like her over-sized Cosby sweater oozes vertical stripes. She advances to the Top 24, and the four-month-long ugly sweater party continues. 

Tough Cuts, Doubts and Heartbreak

The eliminations of Chynna Sherrod, Mary Williams and Zach Person leave the other contestants on edge, and no one is more unsure than Dalton Rapattoni. The beach-bum version of Adam Lambert has proven himself to be quite the artist, choosing song after song that you’d never expect would work in such a venue. And his showcase is no different, as he delivers a slowed-down lyrical version of *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me.” 

Harry criticizes him for being inconsistent, but the good kind in that you never know what he’s going to do next. Exciting. He’s quickly emerging as one of my favorites. 

There is no such insecurity from Manny Torres, even though he barely survived the solo round after forgetting his words and not vamping through the silence. He redeems himself with “Master Blaster,” but America won’t be quite as forgiving if he stumbles again. 

Then it’s more instances of rapid-fire bad news for Laurel Wright, Anatalia Villaranda, Isaac Cole, Jon Klassen, Kassy Levels and Andrew Nazarbekian.

The segment ends with Thomas Stringfellow, whose girlfriend dumped him as he headed for the airport. She was afraid he’d break up with her later, so she made him choose between her and Idol. She lost. He dedicates his “Story of My Life” to all those suffering heartbreak, and anyone who rocks a One D song, that hair and the odd combo of a T-shirt and scarf is a lock for staying power. 

That leaves eight spots for 20 singers.

Favorites and Falters

Sonika Vaid had failed to match her star power with her voice, and her “I Surrender” fits the same bill. It’s vocally spectacular, but there’s nothing gripping about it. I wonder if it’s a confidence issue, because she needs own the stage and doesn’t. The judges debated her, but they’re hopeful for growth and put her through to the next round. 

Laryngitis is no longer an issue for Miss Alaska Malie Delgado, but her “Little White Church” seems more like a decent high school talent show. She points out that she “performed the hell out of it,” but that’s what detracted from the vocal aspect. The judges think she’s where she needs to be as a 21-year-old, but her Idol journey has come to an end.

That leads to Olivia Rox, who was on top of my audition rankings, but is now battling a nasty cold. She does her own version of Maroon 5’s “Love Somebody,” and it’s every bit as goose bump inducing as that first time I saw her. If Dalton is my favorite on the male side, she’s the best of the girls. Her jazz musician dad — the Kenny G. version of Keith Urban — is stoked. 

Master of the country twang Emily Brooke has reached the same point where her journey ended last season, and this time she’s supremely confident in her rendition of Carrie Underwood‘s “So Small.” She’s correct, and the judges agree. 

Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t enough for Sarah Sturm (sorry, Lee Jean!), Jordyn Simone, Tiffanne LeMay, Kayla Mickelson and Mionne Destiny. 

Rounding Third Base

Cue the eye roll, because Gianna Isabella is tackling mom Brenda K. Starr’s big hit, “I Still Believe.” But the 80s chart topper is overly critical during the rehearsal, prompting music director Rickey Minor to step in and tell her to back the F up and let him deal with keys and arrangement. 

Gianna is quite good and nails a big note or two, but it’s absolutely nothing in comparison to mama or the Mariah Carey cover. Still, the judges like her potential and decide to keep her around.

Drew Barrymore-on-Ambien Jenn Blosil, who I just learned is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is singing Jennifer Lawrence‘s “The Hanging Tree.” It’s a song I despise, but that might just be because The Hunger Games arrangement is so awful. But this is original and enjoyable, and she earns herself a spot in the Top 24.

With only nine people left for three spots, it’s bad news for Christian Eason, Ariel Sprague, Kelsie Watts and Shevonne Philador. 

Tristan McIntosh keeps riding that my-mom-is-an-Army-major train, and she describes her rendition of Faith Hill’s “Stronger” as the first time she’s ever performed in her life. She’s decent and still exudes potential, but I think she needs a lot of polish before she can be labeled a contender.

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The Final Four

There’s only four folks left from the Top 51, which means it’s time for the dreaded two-person walk to final judgment. 

On the guys’ side, it’s Jordan Sasser and Kacye Haynes, which is an easy choice for me. I’ve never been a fan of Jordan’s overdone scream-singing, while I’ve loved everything Kacye has done. And that holds true when I compare Jordan’s “Love Runs Out” with Kacye’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” So naturally, Jordan is in the Top 24. 

Kacye vows that America hasn’t seen the last of him, while Jordan’s wife pretends to be really, really happy for him.

The final two to walk the Green Mile are La’Porsha Renae and Lindita, which is as no-brainer a slam dunk as you can get. La’Porsha is easily one of the best this season, and while Lindita has a great story after losing 140 pounds, she’s over-confident and screechy. 

“Bang, Bang” is an ambitious choice for sure, but Lindita flexes her swagger, and there’s no denying she has a gigantic voice. La’Porsha, though, closes out the show with a “House of the Rising Sun” that gets standing ovations from spectators and judges alike. Game over.

On to the Semifinals

And so the Season 15 Top 24, the final Top 24 in American Idol history, is set, and there’s an interesting twist moving forward. Half the group (and since there are 13 girls and 11 guys, it will be pseudo-random) will perform twice next week, first solo and then with an Idol alum. But seeing as how 12 performances will be crammed into an hour-show, there’s no way it can be live. And that means the judges will be deciding which five go home each week. 

Then, after things have been narrowed down to the Top 14, the judges will again have the power in deciding the majority of the Top 10. Viewers will then vote among a handful of wildcards to determine which two will join them.

The new format renders America’s vote moot for much of the process, flip-flopping the usual judge-audience roles, and of that I am not a fan. My favorites thus far are MacKenzie Bourg, Olivia Rox, Dalton Rapattoni and La’Porsha Renae, but how can I be sure they’ll even be around once I’m allowed to play my part?

It’s just another sign that Idol is doing whatever it can to control the outcome of The Farewell Season, and they don’t want any vote-for-the-worst candidates lingering. Keith, Harry and J-Lo have done an admirable job (excluding all the performances we didn’t see) but that’s a lot of trust to put in their very capable hands. 

What do you think of the new format? What Idol pairings would you most like to see? And for whom are you anxiously awaiting the opportunity to vote? It’s only like another month until you get that chance. 

American Idol airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.

(Image courtesy of FOX)

Bill King

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Emmy-winning news producer & former BuddyTV blogger. Lover of Philly sports, Ned, Zoe, Liam and Delaine…not in that order