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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

‘Embarrassed’ contestant storms off set during ‘American Idol’ Hollywood Week

When we last left American Idol, Hollywood Week’s first round, the Genre Challenge — which Season 20’s special “platinum ticket” recipients, Huntergirl, Jay Copeland, and Kenedi Anderson, had been allowed to skip — had just wrapped. On Sunday, it was time for those three chosen ones to rejoin the competition for the Duets Challenge. But Huntergirl, Jay, and Kenedi still had an advantage heading into round two, as they’d have their “pick of the litter” for their duet partners, while all of the other contestants would have their partners assigned by the judges.

The big question this Sunday, then, was: Would the platinum frontrunners choose duet partners to complement them, or would they go for fodder contestants they could easily upstage? Nice-guy judge Lionel Richie made it clear he’d be unimpressed by the latter sort of dastardly strategizing, and in fact told all the contestants, “We’re not here to have a duel. … When you have a duel, somebody gets shot.” Lionel additional asked every contestant to consider, “Was that a giving moment, or were you just trying to steal the show?”

Huntergirl, Jay, and Kenedi’s partner choices were a bit questionable, in two cases maybe even unwittingly self-sabotaging. A smitten Huntergirl seemed to select hunky troubadour Cole Wesley Ritter because she thought they’d make a good couple personally, as opposed to professionally. As a result, their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” was shockingly lackluster for someone that Luke Bryan had proclaimed the best female country singer of the season.

Kenedi picked Jordan Chase because she was “literally obsessed with his voice,” but they also didn’t gel. Jordan changed up the melody of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” so much it was practically unrecognizable, and Luke pointed out that both Jordan and Kenedi had “some hiccups, some fumbles.” Jay, clearly not worried about being outshined, made the arguably best decision by going with powerhouse and “well-rounded artist” Morgan Gruber, but it probably wasn’t the best decision for him to acquiesce to Morgan’s demand that they sing the A Star Is Born ballad “Shallow.” (Surprisingly, Jay was unfamiliar with the Gaga/Cooper film, and having Morgan tell him the detailed plot, seemingly in real time, didn’t help matters much.)

Still, all of these duos at least got along with their chosen partners and tried to work as teams. As for the judges’ assignments for the rest of the lot, Katy Perry, Luke, and Lionel for the most part got it right, and most of the contestants seemed happy with their partners. But of course, every season of Hollywood Week — with its sleep deprivation, wee-hour rehearsals, song-selection crises, and bad step-touch choreography — has to bring some drama. And this season, the drama was brought by arranged couple Scarlet and Douglas Mills Jr.

Scarlet auditioned last year and received a golden ticket, but decided not to come to Hollywood in Season 19 after all so she could finish school. While in the past the judges have admonished returning contestants who’ve ghosted the show, they were all smiles when they recognized Scarlet this season — and considering that her audition was shown in the final slot this year, on a special bonus episode following the Oscars, it seems the show’s producers were happy about her comeback as well. However, Scarlet’s energy with Douglas — a sweet, bullied high school misfit who’d been surprised by his local news with an invitation to audition for Idol — was all bad juju from the start. (It probably wasn’t a good sign when she crabbily warned her partner that she’s a “personal space freak” and ordered him to back away.) While Scarlet and Douglas sentimentally billed their twosome as “Mixed Match” because they were “nothing alike” but “get along,” I didn’t witness much getting along once they started rehearsing. The judges definitely got this match wrong.

Scarlet’s bad attitude made their rehearsals a slog, but Douglas was not blameless here. Just like the situation with Jay and Morgan, Douglas insisted on them singing a certain song — the Greatest Showman ballad “Rewrite the Stars” — which Scarlet didn’t seem too thrilled with. But in this case, oddly, it was Douglas who didn’t know the song well. And he even confessed that he’s not usually a quick study when it comes to picking up new lyrics! “Sometimes I’ll completely blank for some reason,” he said. Douglas obviously needed a patient and understanding partner… and Scarlet wasn’t it.

Scarlet became “really stressed out and overwhelmed” with Douglas’s struggle, finally barking at him, “I’m at the certain point where it’s like, this is just embarrassing.” Exasperated, she muttered, “I’m about to lose it,” ripped off her mic pack, and stormed off in a huff. “When I get stressed like that, it hits, like, a certain little pressure point,” she explained to producers after she’d cooled down.

As time was ticking away, Douglas went searching for Scarlet throughout the Orpheum Theatre, eventually finding her rehearsing by herself on a stairwell. Scarlet, to her credit, sincerely apologized to Douglas for her mini-meltdown, telling him she just needed a time-out and saying, “We’re on the same team; I’m not trying to go against you.” But Douglas’s lyrical recall didn’t improve once they resume their rehearsal, and once they finally got onstage in front of the judges, the tension between him and Scarlet was cut-with-a-knife thick. And, to employ another cutlery metaphor, Scarlet was positively staring daggers at Douglas. Unsurprisingly, they never really got in sync during their duet, and a disgruntled Scarlet described their performance as “death by song.”

Scarlet hits her breaking point during 'American Idol' Season 20's Hollywood Week. (Photo: ABC)

Scarlet hits her breaking point during ‘American Idol’ Season 20’s Hollywood Week. (Photo: ABC)

A confused Luke spoke for all of America (and for Scarlet, of course) when he said, “I don’t understand why they’re singing a song they don’t know!” Katy agreed that their song pick “did not work in their favor” and that neither contestant had lived up to the promise of their earlier auditions (particularly in the case of Douglas, whose audition Katy had described as “life-changing”). But somehow, both contestants — yes, even the attitudinal, ghosting Scarlet — had already amassed enough goodwill to scrape through to round three. But that round, the Showstoppers Challenge, will be challenging indeed for both contestants. That’s when either singer may really experience “death by song.”

Some of Sunday’s other duos also floundered. Olivia Faye and the very inexperienced Noah Thompson started rehearsing “Lean on Me” but were advised by the show’s coaches to do something more country, so the night before their performance, they switched to… “July” by Noah Cyrus. (OK, then.) Another last-minute decision was for Noah to ditch his crutch-like guitar so he wouldn’t be distracted. Unfortunately, none of these revisions improved their chances; their overall number was weak and dreary. Noah even came in at the wrong time (“I messed it up,” he lamented under his breath, to which Olivia just nodded woodenly), a moment that Luke said caused the “dominos to fall” as the performance derailed. Somehow both singers also got through, although I think only Olivia earned her spot. But Luke, Noah’s biggest fan on the panel, insisted that Noah simply “doesn’t know how real his voice is.”

Another disappointing performance was Cadence Baker and Cole Hallman’s “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You.” The two first met at the Nashville auditions and became fast friends, so there was a ease to their vibe onstage — perhaps a little too much ease. This felt more like a raw rehearsal than a public performance. Cole, another very green performer, had lost some of his voice due to pushing himself too much, and Katy found him “underwhelming.” But surprisingly, Cadence — for whom Luke had once “stuck his neck out” and already declared “the potential winner” — had also “declined” in Luke’s eyes. That being said, the judges still believed in Cadence, a much more polished performer who hails from a musical family, so they let her stick around. Cole was not so fortunate.

A couple of other duets that ended in split judging decisions were a little sadder to witness. Two songwriters, former Voice contestant Allegra Miles and Taylor Fagins (whose Black Lives Matter anthem “We Need More” was one of the best in the series’ history) seemed like a match made in Idolheaven. But when were tasked with singing Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven,” Taylor’s vocal shortcomings, compared to many of his peers, became apparent. So, Taylor was sent home, but Lionel, who had wept during Taylor’s powerful audition on the Season 20 premiere, stressed that this decision was made with a “heavy heart.” Lionel assured Taylor, “My friend, know that your career is just starting. … I love you, I love you!” I do agree that Taylor has a big future — just not on American Idol.

Another heavy-hearted audition was by Sam Moss and Haley Slaton, two pregnant contestants who tearily bonded with new mom Katy before their duet performance of Robyn’s classic “Dancing on My Own.” I thought both women sounded great, but strangely, only Sam advanced. As Haley cried and said her goodbyes, Katy told her, “I know you’re going to make a great mother — and I also know you’re never going to give up on your dreams.”

As for Sunday’s more successful pairings, oddballs Fritz Hager and Leah Marlene, who clearly formed a bond during round one’s Genre Challenge (Leah was practically swooning during Fritz’s performance last week), were an adorkable buddy act during their own folksy cover of “Locked Out of Heaven.” (Imagine if Brandi Carlile and, say, Ed Sheeran dueted on the Bruno tune.) The new BFFs’ harmonies were locked in, their chemistry was cute, and their arrangement was unexpected and inventive. Lionel raved that this was “how a duet is supposed to be,” and Luke describe Leah as “next-level.”

Season 20 class clowns Tristen Gressett and Cameron Whitcomb were perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the night. This pairing had the potential for so much cringe — so much so that I wondered if they’d just been put together for comedic/dramatic effect. (“Whatever you do, don’t drink coffee!” Luke warned them.) But their “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” was no joke. This was legit! The judges were totally astounded by their country-rawk tour de force. “I’m not sure who the hell you turned into, but I’m sure glad you showed up,” Lionel told them. I sure was glad too.

Another pair of cut-ups who surprised me were showboaters Kevin Gullage and Yoli Mayor, who nicknamed themselves “The Dysfunctional Duo” and put the “fun “in “dysfunctional” by turning “Anything I You Do, I Can Do Better” into a good sort of duel, as they bantered and sassed back and forth. I’m not sure how far either contestant can go on Idol, but these friendly rivals definitely need their own variety show or Las Vegas lounge residency.

The night ended seriously with two brilliant ballads, the first by a pair of standout power-belters, Christian Guardino and Nicolina Bozzo. When Katy found out they’d decided to do Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion’s “The Prayer” — an ambitious pick that no other contestant dare touch Sunday — she understandably gasped, “Hold on to your wigs!” And this was definitely a wig-flipping performance, a total stunner that Lionel described as “craaaaaazy.” Lionel told Christian and Nicolina he was “mesmerized, just watching how you play off each other.” And yes, after watching other duos bicker and struggle to connect on- or offstage, seeing the love and support between these two was lovely indeed.

And the support between this evening’s odd couple — 2016’s Miss America Betty Maxwell, a trained opera singer and obviously a seasoned competitor, and insecure and shy teenager Kelsie Dolin, who’d never performed in public before Hollywood Week — was also wonderful to behold. During their rehearsals of “Just Give Me a Reason,” it was evident that Betty was a little frustrated by the “sticky situation” as Kelsie battled her nerves — but instead of losing her patience like the above-mentioned Scarlet, she was incredibly encouraging and gentle with Kelsie, pep-talking her throughout the process. Following more encouragement from Katy, who called Kelsie a “diamond in the rough,” Kelsie sadly murmured, “I’m grateful that Betty and Katy believe in me; I wish I believed in myself too.”

But somehow Katy and Bettie pulled it together, and onstage they both connected with Pink’s song in their own ways — the vulnerable and guileless Kelsie maybe even more so. Their performance left Lionel in tears. “I thought you wouldn’t rise to the occasion. You were scared. But what you did tonight, you worked through it. Who the heck are you now?” Lionel told Kelsie. And Katy, who praised Betty for her kindness, assured Kelsie, “I think you found something you can build on for the rest of your life, because you finally believe in yourself. We see your future.” As OG Idol judge Randy Jackson used to say, teamwork makes the dream work.

Tune Monday for the final round of Hollywood Week, the Showstoppers Challenge, when the 59 remaining hopefuls — including Scarlet and Douglas Mills Jr. — will take the stage with a full live band, in front of a live audience, as they vie for spots in this season’s top 24. I worry that the vocal coaches and band members will find the easily rattled Scarlet difficult to work with (although it’s possible she was just the victim of a bad edit Sunday), and that Douglas won’t be able to keep up with this show’s grueling pace (an inability to remember lyrics will no doubt hinder him in this competition, no matter how far he goes, since the show requires singers to learn new songs literally every week). But maybe, like Kelsie, they’ll both rise to the occasion. See you then.

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