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Casey Abrams and James Durbin Take Big Risks on American Idol

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After a quick opening replay of Pia Toscano’s shocking elimination from last Thursday’s American Idol – and congratulations for Jennifer Lopez and her World’s Most Beautiful cover of PEOPLE – the camera picked out a girl in the audience holding up a big sign that said, “I Miss Pia.” But the “a” was blocked by someone in front of her. Unless the sign really did say, “I Miss Pi.” Perhaps she was mathematically inclined.

Wednesday’s 90-minute show was devoted to movie music. The judges awarded one standing ovation, and it went to Casey Abrams, who chose a Nat King Cole song from the 1948 film The Boy with the Green Hair. He performed “Nature Boy” on his upright bass, peppering the old-school cool with a few jazz riffs. Although producer and mentor Jimmy Iovine had suggested Casey go with Phil Collins, the judges not only praised him for his integrity, but wandered off into a sidebar about what it means to win American Idol in its tenth season.

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“You don’t have to be a pop star,” Jennifer said. Randy Jackson, after tossing out names like Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock, told Casey, “There’s a place for this, and a place for you … The world cannot live by pop stars alone.”

One might ask whether the performance was particularly original, or closer to a novelty number. Casey, interviewed backstage, was close to tears.

Simon Cowell might have blown a gasket.

An Intense Stefano

Was it finally a comeback for Stefano Langone, that talented but frequent visitor to the bottom ranks? After getting some solid encouragement from Iovine, who told him he had the voice to win, he sang Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” from Boomerang. I wish he didn’t have to sing everything with the same pleading intensity – what does he do with “Happy Birthday?” But the judges unanimously said he was back in the running. Randy told him he had just “slayed” the song and said it was his “best vocal on this stage to date.” “This is so not the end of the road for you,” Steven Tyler assured Stefano.

The biggest miss of the night came when Haley Reinhart sang Blondie’s great “Call Me” from American Gigolo. A good provocative song choice, although she was more naughtily cute than come-hither. “It felt when it started very karaoke,” said Randy. Jennifer said she was inclined to agree with him – but didn’t want to say anything negative and risk losing any more female singers.

Lauren Alaina, the only other female contestant, went with Miley Cyrus‘s “The Climb” from The Hannah Montana Movie. “You’re a much, much stronger singer” than Cyrus, Iovine told her, suggesting that she could even mop up what’s left of the Pia vote. She wasn’t quite in command of the song’s opening, but she rose as the notes rose and regained some of her country mojo. “I love the tear you have in your voice, the cry,” said Jennifer. “You don’t need to steal anybody’s votes. You’re getting plenty of your own.”

Awfully ’70s

Paul McDonald, in a black suit decorated with hallucinatory red flowers and gold petals, sang Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” from Risky Business. It felt awfully ’70s when he shook a tambourine and danced next to the sax player. “I love your crazy wild abandon,” said Steven. Jennifer and Randy both agreed he was growing week to week.

Mr. Iovine pointedly told Jacob Lusk he got himself in trouble with last week’s voters by lecturing them about how they should respond to his singing. This time he said nothing, letting the music do the work. He performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” featured in The Pursuit of Happyness, in his usual powerful mix of high notes and deep gulps. “God bless you, man, and your voice,” said Steven. “It was like perfect, perfect, perfect harmony,” said Randy.

After considering the classic “Everybody’s Talking” from Midnight Cowboy, Scotty McCreery decided he’d be more comfortable with George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart” from Pure Country. He may have been too comfortable – he was middle-of-the-road, middle-aged slick. Ah well, there were no complaints from the judges. “Everybody wants us to be tough with you guys,” said Jennifer, laughing, “but the truth is you are so damned good.” Randy said, “A star is born.”

James Durbin, like Casey, bucked Iovine’s opinion and went with Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” from the movie of the same name. (Watch a clip below.) “You think I’m an accident?” asked Iovine, referring to his track record of hits. He then went out and gave a suitably heavy performance to end the show, demonstrating worship for solo guitarist Zakk Wylde. “That felt really, really real,” said Jennifer, returning to the theme that new types of music have infiltrated the show. “Outstanding, Durbin,” said Steven. “Nice lip to Jimmy [Iovine].”