Laila Mach, 15, New Paltz, New York (original song) — She is such a big fan of season 16 finalist Gabby Barrett, they placed Gabby on a Zoom call with her for some words of encouragement. Gabby is the most successful “Idol” in many years courtesy of her multi-platform smash hit “I Hope.” Mach’s original song about a breakup is super pretty paired with surprisingly harsh lyrics such as hoping her ex-boyfriend drives off a bridge. Take that, Taylor Swift! Her skills are undeniable. She could go far in this competition.
R’eh, 27, Houston, Army National Guard (”Bad Girls” by Donna Summer) — She is no Donna Summer. She is not a terrible dancer but her vocals are merely okay. The entire performance felels very amateur cabaret. The judges are far more impressed than I am.
After the first commercial break, Luke Bryan’s allegiance to the University of Georgia Bulldogs is revealed and several contestants follow suit. Katy purposely irritated him by saying, “Roll Tide” multiple times. Why is this even happening? The Georgia/Alabama game was on that same weekend they were taping on Oct. 17, 2020.
Michael Gerow, 16, St. Louis (original ballad) — He doesn’t have much of a voice but does emote well and the judges are smitten. Lionel likes his vulnerability. Katy got a good night’s sleep and says he is “an exceptional singer” and possesses “swag.” He’s a handsome teen boy and those sometimes do make it into the top 10, so you never know.
Cameron McGhar, 16, Clanton, Alabama (”Girl Crush” Little Big Town) — Her mom died of drugs at birth, and she carried a weight of sadness and anxiety until her grandma placed her in pageants, and she gained confidence. Singing became her refuge. But she is clearly nervous. She has this unnatural sway going on and strange tonal problems. It is not a good audition. Katy gives her a second shot, and her Tanya Tucker cover is an improvement, but her stage presence is decidedly lacking. Her movements are almost Elaine Benes (the fictional character Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays on the sitcom “Seinfeld”) bad. Lionel says no. I expect Katy to follow suit, but she gives Cameron a surprise yes, as does Luke. This is a headscratcher. She has no chance in Hollywood. This is a waste of a plane ticket.
Beane (Brennan Hefler) 23, Boston (”Wait for the Moment” by Vulfpeck) wedding singer — He loves his nana. He has a warm tone in his voice in a Michael Bublé sort of way. He also has a lovely grin and cheerful persona. Lionel calls him the new modern-day Mr. Rogers but wonders if he’s “Idol” worthy. Luke has the same issue. But Katy calls him a “walking pocket full of sunshine... literal stardust.” The three judges end up saying yes.
Anthony Key, 27, Merrillville, Indiana, DJ (”Dynamite” BTS) — He wants to be a boy band dude. Nobody will mistake him for Justin Timberlake. He is more Chris Kirkpatrick. In other words, his voice is good enough for backup singing in my mind, but he lacks distinction beyond being an imitator. Fortunately, the judges agree and say no. Or as the Backstreet Boys might say: “Bye Bye Bye”!
Ash Ruder, 22, Turlock, California (original song) — Her dad had drinking issues when she was a kid and was absent. He felt guilt and is trying to make it up now, being sober for two years. She performs a song about her dad as he tearfully watches. She has a pretty singer-songwriter voice, and the song is super touching. Luke says he’d like to hear other dynamics in her voice but likes the vibrato. Katy loves the healing that is going on and hopes she can bring that connectedness of feeling to Hollywood. This is an easy yes for all three judges.
Cheryl K, 24, Malaysia singer (”Endless Love” with Lionel Richie) — She isn’t an American, so this is a gimmick audition. She apparently recorded two songs on the “Crazy Rich Asians” soundtrack. She is a huge Lionel Richie fan and brings the ‘45 of “Endless Love” from 40 years ago. She asks if they could sing together. During the duet, she is decidedly inconsistent playing off Richie, sometimes over-singing, sometimes sounding weak. We don’t get to hear her solo audition. She gets three noes.
Heather Russell, 20, Toronto (”Harley’s in Hawaii” Katy Perry) — She has some really sharp vocal skills, but she clearly is trying to do too much and the song isn’t all that. Luke says she may have over-done the vocal tricks and didn’t look at the judges. Katy says she is too much frosting, not enough cake. “You sound dead inside,” Katy opines with her meanest line of the night. She still gets a yes from all three judges. I doubt she will make it to the live shows.
Caleb Kennedy 16, Roebuck, South Carolina (”Nowhere,” an original) — After his parents’ divorce, he wrote songs to help him get back to normality. He has a solid old-school raspy country vocal sound. Katy and Luke like the original song a lot, even though he doesn’t have a second verse yet. Katy connects with the pain in his voice, saying he has the power to change his life now. Lionel says he has a storytelling voice. He gets three emphatic yeses.
Abby Lebaron, 19, Springfield, Utah, social media manager (”All I Want” by Kodaline) — She has a bracingly charismatic voice. I was caught up in it immediately. She is quite talented. Katy says she needs to work on believing in herself. Luke says he had chill bumps from the get-go, but three quarters through, she made some weird choices. She admits she hit the wrong chord, and it threw her off. Luke says she needs to relax. Lionel says to lean back a bit and groove in it. She gets three yeses. She is someone we may see again — or not. I can’t tell.
Murphy, 27, Baltimore, traveling musician (”Just the Two of Us” Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr./”The Painted Man” (Original)) — He’s had a tough life. He was blind in one eye and made fun of. His mom died young. His dad died after a heroin addiction. He busked for three years across the country. Music was his salvation. His “Just the Two of Us” feels almost too fast and facile. Katy says he is on the “precipice of something cool, but it isn’t quite there. It needs a little more inflection, more dynamics.” Lionel says he has to shed some layers of mystique and reveal more of himself. So, Murphy opts for an original. It’s significantly better. There is real joy in his performance. Katy: “It’s just a little too novelty. It needs to be a little more mainstream.” She says no, but Lionel and Luke like him enough to put him through. He is a potential dark horse. Will he rise to the occasion in Hollywood or fade away?
Alyssa Wray, 18, Perryville, Kentucky (”I Am Changing” Jennifer Hudson) — She is from a tiny town, the perfect template for “American Idol.” She’s very tall at 6′ 2′' and considers herself colorful and outside the box. Good news: she pulls off a commanding performance that lifts the judges to their feet for the entire audition. She possesses a voice and stage presence that could take her straight to the top 10. Wow! Lionel: “I am so happy!” Luke: “The most challenging thing in entertainment is to have a presence.” Katy: “I think you’ve had dreams, right? Growing up with 800 people in your town? You’re like, ‘Oh my God. I’m different. I came from a spaceship. I don’t belong here.’ Everybody belongs. You just have to find where you belong and be open to what the world wants to give you, which is anything you want.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“American Idol,” 8 p.m. Sundays on ABC or Hulu the next day