Danny & Alexis Shine On Idol‘s First Live Show

02/18/2009 AT 12:00 AM EST

At the start of Idol's first night of live performances, Paula told the contestants: "You got to hit that center stage and make magic happen in a minute and 20 seconds." The two hours that followed weren't terribly enchanting -- mostly a lot of random rabbits escaping from hats -- with the judges frequently faulting the singers for picking songs that didn't showcase their talent. Stephen Fowler, 26, did such a lackluster job on Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," Kara said she preferred him last week when he completely blanked out and walked off the stage. "I don't like this," moaned Randy.

Viewers will have all sorts of reasons for casting the votes that determine the three survivors (the male contestant with the most votes, the female with the most votes, plus one runner-up of either sex) from the night's 12 singers. But the best performances were clear.

In the first hour, Alexis Grace, 21, proved herself the most adept pupil of the Idol improve-your-way-to-stardom philosophy. She's slicked up and toughened up her look since the audition rounds, and she sang Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man" to raves from the judges. Simon predicted she could be one of the season's dark horses, comparing her to Kelly Clarkson. Kara said, "The genie is out of the bottle with you!"

Then, wrapping up the show, Danny Gokey, 28, wowed with a strenuously heroic cover of Mariah Carey's "Hero." Randy proclaimed him "the redeemer of the night!" Paula said, "I have two words with hypens: sold-out arenas." Simon, while generally approving, noted: "I'm just not buying the hype."

The judges' other favorite was Ricky Braddy, 26, who wasn't even featured on camera in previous weeks. He sang a super-smooth version of Leon Russell's "Song for You." Kara: "Amazing! Your riffs! Your interpretation!" But Simon cautioned that he lacked star quality.

Anoop Desai, 22, who strongly impressed viewers in the audition and Hollywood rounds, disappointed with a bland version of Monica's "Angel of Mine." Still, voters will likely stick with him over Braddy.

And over-the-top Tatiana Del Toro, 24? She sang a surprisingly subdued "Saving All My Love for you" by Whitney Houston. This seemed to puzzle the judges more than her previous supersized performances. Before she left, she made a dignified plea: "America, please vote -- this is my dream and it's up to you to keep it alive."

America, you know what you have to do. -- Tom Gliatto

Tell us: Who did you vote for? Which three contestants will make it to the next round? Do you like the new road to the top 12?Frank Micelotta/FOX

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