Rather than offer any big surprises, the first "American Idol" show of the post-Sanjaya era instead found the six remaining contestants confirming what we'd already known about them. Jordin Sparks and Melinda Doolittle are by far the best singers; Phil Stacey and LaKisha Jones are headed in opposite directions; and Chris Richardson and Blake Lewis look better than they sing.
Given that he was one of the bottom two vote getters just three weeks ago, you have to admire Stacey's recent resurgence. The Navy man's sturdy, assured take on Garth Brooks' "The Change" was his second solid performance in as many weeks. He still looks like a member of the undead, but the way Stacey has learned to inject some life into his singing has suddenly turned him into a dark horse -- especially if Chris and Blake split the Tiger Beat vote in Sanjaya's absence.
Sadly for her, Jones continued to be the yin to Stacey's phoenix-like yang. It wasn't too long ago that the big-voiced Flint, Mich., resident was one of the favorites, but she seems to have lost any sense of which songs will work for her. Her decision to sing former "Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino's "I Believe" was gutsy, but she simply didn't have the chops to pull it off. Jones hasn't delivered a knockout performance in a long time. She should be worried.
Blake Lewis isn't in the dire straits that Jones is, but he could also stand to be a little smarter in his song choices. Blondie didn't make any big blunders on "Imagine," but as Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell pointed out, he didn't do anything to distinguish himself either. Just as an aside, am I the only one who was surprised when the judges applauded Lewis' sincerity? I totally don't buy his whole wide-eyed, sensitive-guy shtick. In fact, I say phooey on you, Blake Lewis.
And only a little less phooey on you, Chris Richardson. I get Richardson's appeal -- his thin, pliable vocals, boyish looks and nonthreatening demeanor mark him as a (very) poor man's Justin Timberlake -- but he's stuck in a rut of not-that-bad that his take on Eric Clapton's "Change the World" did nothing to get him out of. Still, he bugs me less than Lewis does.
More and more, the show is looking like a two-woman race between Doolittle and Sparks. The 29-year old Doolittle used to sing backup for folks like Aaron Neville and Michael McDonald and her experience shows week after week. She brings a level of poise and confidence to her singing that none of the other contestants can match. But as her performance of Faith Hill's "There Will Come a Day" proved, Doolittle never sacrifices passion for professionalism. She's great.
If Doolittle is the seasoned pro, Sparks is the gifted ingénue. The youngest remaining contestant closed the show with an amazingly self-possessed and powerful performance of Carousel's "You'll Never Walk Alone." The judges harp on it, but it's true -- it's hard to believe Sparks is only 17. Win or lose, she has a bright future. Certainly a brighter one than LaKisha Jones, anyway.
-- David Marchese