‘American Idol': Elton John, James Durbin’s Flaming Piano, Casey Abrams’ Comeback

I am floored by the skill with which the Idols interpreted Sir Elton’s classics this week

Elton John’s songwriting genius is such that one can experience its poignancy in virtually any medium — 8-track cassettes, Broadway musicals, and, of course, animated features starring adolescent lions with existential crises. Though it’s hard to surprise the audience after last week’s shocker of a results show, I am floored by the skill with which the Idols interpreted Sir Elton’s classics this week. And let’s not neglect to mention his long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin.

Though each contestant excels musically in his or her genre, the one piece that has been lacking is connection — connection with the audience and connection with the songs themselves. The hopefuls seemed to remedy that problem this time around by choosing songs that really spoke to them and then singing the heck out of them. Let’s hope it lasts longer than a donut at Randy’s house.

SCOTTY McCREERY “Country Comfort”
Aw, shucks, ya’ll, Scotty really knows his audience! In a pre-taped interview, he tells us that this whole lifestyle out here in Hollyweird is a whole lot different from back home. He makes sure to add, though, that he’ll always be a North Carolina boy at heart. I can actually hear the votes coming in! Scotty didn’t have to look very hard to find a song that spoke to him; this one actually has “country” in the title. While the words remained the same, he honky tonked it up a bit. Playing guitar and giving a shoutout to his grandma, his baby face is the only thing that betrays his age. His voice and professionalism are that of a much more mature singer. In fact, Randy felt like he was at a concert and Lopez praised his performance instincts. Jimmy mentioned that some people think he’s a one-trick pony. It seems to me that his best trick is knowing exactly where he fits into the industry.

NAIMA ADEDAPO “I’m Still Standing”
Following the theme of the night, Naima chose a song based on her connection to the lyrics. No stranger to the Bottom Three, she says that a lot of people didn’t expect her to make it this far. (Guilty!) I get that she’s just trying to be herself but who is that anyway? An African tribal dancer? A Rastafarian rapper? A sultry blues singer? Her outfit seemed to be a nod to Elton himself. It looked a little like a '70s leisure suit sprinkled with gay-friendly rainbows. Or perhaps a leprechaun threw up on her; it’s hard to say. She started the song off with a spoken intro about the world’s struggling people — a nice sentiment, if it weren’t for her intolerable fake Jamaican accent. This reggae version just didn’t work for me, dawg. I wouldn’t mind hearing it on vacation if I were half-soused on umbrella drinks but it is not a very radio-friendly tune. Naima has such a great voice. She just needs to stop with the gimmicks. Randy called it “kinda corny” but Steven applauded her for picking a song that fits her.

PAUL McDONALD “Rocket Man”
I was hoping that Paul would bust out “Crocodile Rock,” as I was eager to experience his versions of both the song and the dance. Alas, no luck. Instead, we got to see the tender side of this Southern gentleman, much to the delight of Randy. Paul said that his band covered “Rocket Man” about five years ago, with disastrous results. I am confident in guessing that this version was better. Taking the advice of Jimmy, he performed it like it was his encore song after a big concert. Sporting his flashy trademark $4,500 suit in honor of Elton John, he strummed the guitar and interacted with the crowd. Girls swooned in front of television sets all over the country as he delivered this magical performance. Yes, Paul can wear a white suit embroidered with red flowers and girls will still swoon. Randy, who has always pushed for him to feature this color in his voice, thought his “tenderness” was infectious. Lopez thinks he’s holding back and wants him to push himself. Steven likes the imperfections in his voice.

PIA TOSCANO “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Yes, it was yet another ballad from Ms. Toscano, but can we really complain? Backed by a gospel choir and sporting a diva’s dress, Pia delivered yet another flawless vocal. Hire some backup dancers and she’s ready to take over as a resident performer at Caesar’s; she’s that good. She promises that if she’s here next week, she’ll sing the more lively “River Deep Mountain High.” My only concern is that she won’t get the chance. With no Judges’ Save left to play, I’m worried that people will assume Pia is safe and neglect to vote for her. Either way, she’s ready for bigger things than “American Idol.” Randy called her performance “unbelievable,” while Lopez really wants her to surprise us next week. Steven said it best though: “It’s always good to throw one in there -something that’s not what you are. But listen, that’s what you are. You sang it and you nailed it.”

The weight of this week’s double elimination was clearly on Stefano’s shoulder’s in rehearsal. He has already been saved by the judges once when he was chosen as a Wild Card. Last week, he landed in the Bottom Three. There is no chance at redemption this time around if America doesn’t get behind him. That being said, I think he’s in trouble. Yes, he at least opened his eyes while singing this week — a vast improvement in the “connection” department. But the problem was that his performance sounded like someone covering an Elton John song, rather than Stefano singing a song of his own. You may argue that Sir Elton’s songs are too iconic to sound original, but I think that the other contestants achieved that feat successfully. Randy thought Langone did a “very nice job,” while Lopez was impressed that he took their notes on connecting to the audience. Like me, Steven thinks Stefano has a little Broadway in his voice but he liked that he connected with the audience.

LAUREN ALAINA “Candle in the Wind”
Golly! Lauren seems to be taking sound bite lessons from Scotty, as she marveled at how being a singer comes with “all this fancy stuff.” Taking on the best-selling single in Billboard history, Alaina mentioned that she could really relate to this song. In fact, I thought she might cry during the studio rehearsal. (Backstory please!) Thankfully, Seacrest didn’t pry on the subject of dead loved ones, as he infamously did last season with Didi Benami. This was the perfect song to showcase Lauren’s musical prodigy. Instead of playing sassy-cute, she simply sang the song and connected to the lyrics. Steven, a fan from the start, called it “perfect” and “beautiful.” J. Lo said that it was the first time everybody in America got to hear what they heard during her first audition. She then proclaimed it the “best of the night.”

JAMES DURBIN “Saturday Night’s Alright”
James has taken a page right out of Adam Lambert’s playbook — and I’m not talking about screeching. This kid has showmanship in spades.  He definitely succeeded in executing what he referred to as an “arena rock moment.” Walking through the crowd, he made his way down the staircase before leaping into a cheerleader-worthy toe touch and landing safely on the stage. Once on stage, he had the crowd cheering “Saturday! Saturday Sat-ur-day!” He jumps onto the red piano and then jumps off. I am exhausted! But, wait! The piano then bursts into flames. Later he joked that he had so much rocker hairspray in his hair that he was afraid of having a (Michael Jackson) “Pepsi moment.” But then Seacrest reminded him that the show is sponsored by Coke. Randy loves that James enjoys himself. Jennifer forgets that she’s even watching a competition and Steven thinks he has a great rock voice.

Jimmy cautioned Thia away from “the dramatic” and anything reminiscent of high school plays. Apparently he’s picking up on the pageant vibe as well. If the audience believes the emotion, he said, she’ll get through to the following week. If they don’t, she should pack her bags. Thia chose this song because it reminded her of her older brother, who moved away when she was very young. I expected more of the same but I was pleasantly surprised. Thia got out of her head for once and felt the song. She actually connected to what she was singing and what resulted was a quieter, more reserved performance. In fact, I literally thought she was going to cry at the end. To me, this was her best performance to date, but after her previous cabaret-like performances, it may be too little, too late. Lopez thought it was a “beautiful moment,” while Randy enjoyed the relaxed side of Thia. Steven commented that, “When you find the right song, the voice appears.”

Jimmy had Casey watch a video of his performance before telling him what was wrong with it — “everything.” I totally disagree. In my opinion, Casey has not had a bad performance to date. It is impossible to try to figure out why he didn’t garner votes last week but I am confident in saying that it wasn’t for his lack of talent. Making a point to “connect,” Casey said that he was going to interpret this song more than he has with past songs. Sitting on a stool, under a fake starry sky, Casey sang this song so well that it almost made me forget about Ewan McGregor nailing it in “Moulin Rouge!” or even Sir Elton himself. It was lovely to witness the softer side of Casey, especially when I wasn’t even aware that such a side existed. Randy thought it was “nice and tender,” not to mention “brilliant.” Steven reassured him about the Judges’ Save and said, “One of the finest moments on this show was putting you through.” Lopez echoed his sentiments by saying that while she’s lost sleep over cutting talented people this season, she hasn’t lost any sleep over saving Casey.

JACOB LUSK “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”
Jacob heard the Mary J. Blige version of this ballad before he ever listened to John’s. How fitting, then, that the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” just happened to be in the back of the room while Lusk was there for rehearsal. Jimmy worried, rightfully so, that Jacob could blow it by laying on the melodrama when it came to this already dramatic song. The smoke machine and solo spotlight didn’t help in repressing the drama. Like Lauren and Thia, Jacob also looked like he might shed a tear during his performance. It was dramatic, yes, but not in the usual Jacob way. The drama and tension came in his restraint, both physically and vocally, save for the last endless note. It was almost as if we were eavesdropping on a breakup; he was actually singing to a specific person. The performance blew Steven away and Lopez thought the arrangement was amazing. Randy liked the restraint but wants Jacob to pick one spot in each song and just go for it, Jacob-style. I never thought I’d say this about Lusk, but his was my favorite performance of the night.

HALEY REINHART “Bennie and the Jets"
Jimmy lamented that every week, some part of Haley has been missing. He wants her to get her voice, movement and the whole package and put it all together. One thing that hasn’t been missing from Haley is her sultriness and she really revved it up with this performance. Laying across the piano like a torch singer, she purred the notes before taking the stage to yell out “Bennie!” with unbridled, passionate, uh, enthusiasm. For once she was not thinking about where to move or how to move; she just moved. Perhaps she was trying to reign in her sexiness before. It is, after all, a family show. But letting go this week seemed to earn her points with the judges. Steven said, “You sing sexy.” Jennifer called it a great way to end the show. Randy deemed it the “best performance of the night.”