"It does feel a bit like The Hunger Games," said Keith Urban, ramping up the drama as American Idol kicked off the first day of Hollywood Week.
Although producers didn't unleash any tracker jackers on the contestants, they did throw in a couple unexpected twists: This season the week started off as a guys-only competition (the girls arrive in Hollywood next week), and after surviving a round of sudden death solo sing-offs, contestants would then be put into groups from which they couldn't escape.
During the solo round, the standouts included two memorable contestants from the nationwide auditions. First up, Navy man Micah Johnson, who developed a speech impediment after suffering through a botched surgery to remove his tonsils. After a rousing rendition of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets," Johnson was the first to get the green light to the next round.
Joining him soon after was Cuban-American Lazaro Arbos, a 21-year-old ice cream scooper from Naples, Fla., who speaks with a severe stutter but sings with ease. Although Arbos admitted to being both "scared" and "petrified," he quickly won the judges over – Nicki Minaj made her fingers into a heart-shape while he sang – with his take on the Robbie Williams hit, "Angels."
When it came time to form groups of four, the Idol producers threw a few more curveballs – such as pairing a couple of country crooners with two flamboyant (think glitter and faux fur) dudes Ryan Seacrest described as the show's "resident divas."
The result: a quartet that dubbed themselves Country Queen, which delivered a train wreck of a performance. Still, somehow three of the four made it through.
Meanwhile, Arbos's group experience also proved to be a bit of a disaster – which some of his cohorts blamed on his inability to quickly learn the lyrics and melody to the Beach Boys hit "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Although his main nemesis got the boot, a tearful Arbos got the chance to sing another day.
The day of auditions came to a close with what was possibly the most heartbreaking Idol exit ever. New York City subway singer Frankie Ford got a case of the jitters before going on stage, then proceeded to screw up the lyrics and sing off key – leaving the judges no choice but to pull the plug on his dreams. Before walking off into the night, a sobbing Ford stared into the camera and said, "I swear to God I'm coming back next year and I'm going to win."
There will be more solos Thursday (8 p.m. ET), as the judges have to whittle the 43 men left in the competition down to 20 lucky fellas.