Trae Patton/NBC; Chris Haston/NBC
Shawna Malcom
September 15, 2010 09:00 AM

The top four acts took the stage for the final night of competition on America’s Got Talent Tuesday, with one delivering a performance ultimately worth $1 million – and another inspiring a bit of controversy.

The sparks flew early when Piers Morgan used his buzzer to brand the operatic performance by colorful cabaret singer Prince Poppycock with a disapproving red X – a highly unusual move at this late stage. Fellow judge Sharon Osbourne scolded Morgan on-air for the move, and after the cameras stopped rolling, it was judge Howie Mandel’s turn.

“I think he deserved your criticism,” he told Morgan in a joint interview with PEOPLE. “But the X is like our middle finger. And he didn’t deserve your finger.”

Morgan, though, was standing by his decision: “I only use the X when I think that contestant has reached the end of the road. Poppycock lost his sense of fun and became a bit self-indulgent. And since there’s no next round in the competition, the only way to say You’ve blown it, you can’t win,’ was the X.”

Poppycock himself wasn’t sweating Morgan’s critique. “I’m feeling fantastic,” he said. “Piers is a big ninny. If anything, he’s just looking to be divisive and create tension. It was just unfortunate. The act did not go perfectly because I had some technical difficulties but all in all, I have no regrets and no excuses.”

Ten-year-old opera prodigy Jackie Evancho turned in another impressive performance with her rendition of “Ave Maria,” which prompted Morgan to predict she’d win on Wednesday night. What did she think of that vote of confidence? “I was happy but I was also mad,” Evancho said, “because I do like to win but a lot of other people deserve to win, too. I don’t know if Piers sees that there’s a lot of talent in other people, too.”

Blues singer Michael Grimm also earned raves from the judges for his soulful rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He chose that particular song because “I have a girl I was dedicating it to,” he says. “She’s my love, Lucy. We’ve been together going on three years. She’s my best friend.”

The last act to take the stage was innovative black-light performance group Fighting Gravity, which made a noticeable error near the end of their performance when one of its members who was not supposed to be seen became visible. Still, the 13-member troupe was hopeful about their chances. “I think we did a great job and hopefully America thinks so,” said Gravity’s Wes Schoeb. “Ninety-nine percent of it went right, and we put an unbelievable amount of hours into it.”

Wednesday’s two-hour finale will feature performances from Usher, the Goo Goo Dolls and, Poppycock told PEOPLE, his duet with Donna Summer.

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