On American Idol Wednesday night, the stakes escalated, and re-escalated, as the top 11 from last week all performed once again, with two slotted to be eliminated Thursday. That's because last week, in a conclusion of frenzied excitement, Casey was voted off and then saved. "Truly an incredible moment," Ryan Seacrest said.
The show was devoted to the music of Elton John, a man with a talent for seamless pop songwriting and a taste for flamboyant showmanship.
The surprise triumph of the night was Haley, whose performances have generally been among the most criticized by this season's very indulgent judges. She began with "Benny and the Jets" perched atop a piano – an odd strategy – and sang it at a slowed, almost bluesy beat. The judges were thrilled: "That was it, Haley," Jennifer Lopez said. "It all came together – the voice, the moves, the confidence." Randy Jackson called it the "best performance of the night." Steven said, "You sing sexy!"
Casey, not only chastened but better groomed after his escape, sang a fairly tidy and controlled version of "Your Song." He reserved his Joe Cocker growls for the end, then concluded on a quiet near-falsetto. By now he's becoming one of those unlucky singers who have to keep rethinking their approach, but the judges all reiterated how glad they were they'd saved him. "Absolutely brilliant," Randy said.
Having unexpectedly landed in the bottom two last week, Stefano tackled "Tiny Dancer," which concerned Jimmy Iovine because of its tricky chorus. But he negotiated it successfully. Stefano remains Stefano – a great voice who indulges in wedding-singer gestures. (He ended by holding his hand out to Jennifer. Randy tried to take it instead.) "Amazing," Jennifer said. "You started connecting to your audience," Randy added. "You nailed it," said Steven.
James decided to launch "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" at the back of the stage, descending down what should be called the Seacrest Stairs. At the height of his romping and stomping, the onstage piano burst into flames. Well, that was something new. "You brought the heat, didn't you," Steven said. Ba-dum-bum. "Dude, that was a great, great performance," said Randy.
Scotty sang "Country Comfort" for his grandmother, who was in the audience. Maybe it was the song, but I felt I was being comforted into a deep country nap. The judges were delighted: "The fact that you tip a hat to Grandma is the best," said Steven, larding him with praise. Jennifer saluted his "amazing instincts."
Naima performed "I'm Still Standing" with a reggae beat and accent. It caught fire only intermittently. Jennifer began her comments with the phrase, "I love you," and Naima instantly recognized that what was coming wouldn't be too positive. "It came off kinda corny," according to Randy, "and that's not who you are." It was probably the biggest miss of the night.
Mr. Iovine, who's beginning to remind me of Larry David the more he comments on the performers, told Paul to sing "Rocket Man" as if it were the encore of a big concert – which sounded ridiculous, but actually worked. Jennifer and Randy, though, think he needs to test his range more. Steven had no problems with his imperfections: "When you start singing and hitting every note, that's the day when I'm not going to like you any more."
Pia sang "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," one of her personal favorites, arguably with more desperation than the song warrants. "Pia, you've done it again," Steven said, praising her for sticking to power ballads – and implicitly making another of his subtle and witty digs at Randy, who last week suggested that she try a change. Randy was wowed, even so.
Lauren softened her approach with a slightly countrified "Candle in the Wind." It brought out a new gentle prettiness in her voice. Randy called it one of her best performances and told her, "You can do anything." Steven called it "just perfect."
Thia sang "Daniel," dedicated to her brother. In rehearsal she received a stern warning from Iovine: If she couldn't convince the audience of her emotion, he doubted she'd survive. The wistful sadness certainly seemed authentic. But then her singing always seems wistful and sad. "It was a beautiful moment for you," said Jennifer. Steven agreed. Randy thought she was still playing it safe. How about setting the piano on fire?
Jacob sang "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" (and met Mary J. Blige, who also covered the song). The hardest word for Jacob would be "understatement," but he seemed to connect with his song much more deeply than any of the other singers. The only criticism, a mild one, came from Randy, urging him to seize a moment to make each song his own. But doesn't he always do that?