American Idol Chicago Auditions Recap: The Windy (City) Project [Updated]

lazaro arbosLadies and gentlemen, start your Kleenex.

Indeed, 12 seasons in, the giant onion that is American Idol hasn’t lost an ounce of potency. Sit with it long enough — breathe in its swelling strings and its harrowing backstories and its humble notion that, with the right melody, the misfits and outsiders and scrappers of the world can make like Kelly Clarkson and have their very own “moment like this” — and eventually, you’ll be succumbing to the urge to ugly cry on your couch.

To put it another way: Nigel Lythgoe, 1; America’s tear ducts, 0.

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It may have been edited for maximum audience manipulation, but it was impossible not to feel the heartstrings getting pulled like saltwater taffy as 21-year-old ice-cream scooper Lazaro Arbos talked about a severe stuttering problem that resulted in a childhood with too much heartache and not nearly enough friends. How he was nevertheless able to deliver a haunting, melodious rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is not for me to explain, and quite possibly a miracle. And whether or not Lazaro makes it past Hollywood Week is of no consequence. For 10 minutes on January 17, 2013, the kid was an American Idol. Congrats.

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Better still, the Season 12 Chicago auditions gave us a good, long listen to a whopping 16 Golden Ticket recipients — with several legit potential winners in the mix. (They must’ve gotten good and inspired by an appearance from Season 10’s incredible Haley Reinhart, yes?)

Without further ado, let’s do a quick rundown of the proceedings:

Going to Hollywood
* Mackenzie Wasner‘s dad is Vince Gill’s longtime piano player, so if she advances past Hollywood Week, she can brace for the inevitable onslaught of message-board comments accusing her of being too well-connected for an amateur singing competition. Whatever. Mackenzie’s voice floated over “Whenever You Come Around” like a butterfly navigating a field of flowers, and I wanted to hear more, even though the song itself has a hook so weak a guppy could bend it. Keith Urban made an interesting observation that the kid’s runs are reminiscent of Dolly Parton, but Nicki Minaj went a little overboard with her “someone like you only walks into a room every few years.” Is it possible Wigmaster 3000 hasn’t watched any of the prior seasons of Idol?

* Kiara Lanier announced she’d recently sung to President Obama on his birthday, which pretty much erased any possibility she was going to be the rare gorgeous/poised chick with absolutely no vocal ability. That said, when she added she was about to tackle Celine Dion’s “The Prayer” — a vocal quintuple lutz if there ever was one — I got skittish. Turns out there was no need to fret. Sure, Kiara got a little showboat-y with the way she expanded and contracted her voice over the course of a sub-60-second tryout, but if you’ve got it, isn’t your Idol audition the place to flaunt it? I mean, David Blaine’s not gonna try out for America’s Next Top Magician and pull a coin out from behind a kindergartener’s ear, is he?

* Apologies to Stephanie Schimel, but I don’t remember much of her “Dream a Little Dream of Me” — aside from it being benignly pretty — thanks to the Nicki-Mariah dustup that followed it. I’ll admit I chuckled when Nicki told Stephanie they had a rivalry because they were wearing the same color eye shadow, and then I laughed again when an exasperated Mariah declared, “This is what I deal with when I come to ‘my job.'” But somewhere between the former’s flights of limelight and the latter’s growing disenchantment with the drudgery of a day job, the tension got a little less fun.

* Zinger of the night goes to Mariah, who took one look at the homemade cookies delivered by contestant Gabe Brown, then asked, “Is this like Halloween candy where we have to…,” before thinking the better of it and trailing off like Jennifer Lopez trying to sing “Vision of Love.” Gabe’s growling “Gimme Shelter” was very “bear suddenly comes out of a cave to protect its territory” — which is to say a bit shocking, more than a little jarring, and yet not entirely uncompelling. Still, Ms. Carey’s instincts proved correct when she asked for a more mellow followup. Not only was Gabe’s grasp on pitch a little less tight when he wasn’t full-out screaming, but he couldn’t go more than 15 seconds before he brought his trademark brand of vein-flexing bombast to “We All Die Young.” I’m kinda surprised the judges didn’t send him back home with a “come back next year when you’re more polished” pep talk. But some folks have to get that lecture in Hollywood Week, I suppose.

* I’m not Fox Mulder and therefore I don’t want to believe school skipper Isabelle Parell, she of the smoky-good “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” is only 15. I mean, most young’uns that age wouldn’t be all poised and unaffected walking into the audition room and handing a lyric sheet to Keith Urban with the assumption he’d be their duet partner, would they? (Better still was the “you were wonderful”/”please don’t read till after we’ve finished our duet” note Isabelle had scrawled at the bottom of Keith’s note.) I liked the hitch in Isabelle’s voice when she reached for her high notes, and the smoky-jazzy quality with which she infused her vocals. Plus, she’s already got some currency with Mariah, who loves Christmas music, dahhhhlings!

* I know, I know…Nicki is obnoxious, but how can you not crack up when she suggests craziness like shortening Griffin Peterson‘s name to a lascivious “Grrrr” or points out his heartthrob potential with bon mots like “Bieber don’t do this to me!” Anyhow….while Grrr’s choice of “Washed By the Water” (a song I admittedly didn’t know) was a little underwhelming, he’s certainly got a nice tone and some definite charisma. In other words, Randy’s “your voice was just barely below average” feedback merely proves the panel’s longest-malfunctioning member should be sent directly to the unemployment line without passing “Go” and without collecting a copy of Haley Reinhart’s Listen Up! Or maybe he just wanted to see Nicki beg Mariah to join her in sending the guy to Hollywood.

* If you can get Mariah Carey to throw a Gospel hand during a performance by someone other than herself, then you’ve got to be doing something right. If I’m being totally honest, Curtis Finch, Jr‘s choice of “God Is Able” was a little rambling and run-heavy for my personal taste, but it’s hard to complain too much when an auditioner is not only completely on pitch but feeling it like the first addictive blast of your morning shower. Plus, Nicki’s rhythmic “Oh! Em! Gee! Let’s have it for the boy! Boy! Boy!” — which, if we’re truthful, was more RuPaul’s Drag Race than American Idol — is the kind of judging spontaneity that overly self-aware J.Lo never would’ve been capable of pulling off. To which I say, three snaps in a Z-formation, huh-huh-honey!

* Mariah Pulice‘s story of battling back from the depths of anorexia was touching, and her ability to finish “Let It Be” (mostly) in tune was better than admirable, but my inner warning siren went off when she got her Golden Ticket and said the experience made her feel “beautiful for the first time in so long.” Let’s be honest: Reality TV is about as appropriate for someone in the early stages of recovery as a pit filled with live boa constrictors is okay for a miniature dachshund.

* To paraphrase an old Janet Jackson hit, Brandy Neelly‘s audition was a story about control — vocal control, to be specific. The country chica’s rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was one of my favorites in a night because it combined genuine feeling, moments of restraint, gut-busting glory notes and even a hint of gravel toward the finish. Plus, as Keith noted, Brandy picked an inarguably excellent (and not done-to-death) ditty and made it sound like it was written for her. Me likey!

* I didn’t think boyishly handsome Josh Holiday‘s “Back at One” was distinctive or soulful enough to warrant a Golden Ticket — that strained falsetto run at the end sealed my opinion — but the judges seemed to think they were hearing something special. And I’m not about to argue with Mariah and Nicki, seeing how I don’t have a giant Coca-Cola cup to hide behind.

* We only got a brief snippet of Courtney Williams‘ “Who’s Lovin’ You” and Andrew Jones‘ “Knock on Wood,” but the former vocalist definitely had some power in her pipes, while the latter dude brought some needed electricity to the proceedings by infusing his song with finger-snapping, foot-stomping rhythm. Let’s hope he makes it at least till the Group Rounds, yes?

* If Clifton Duffin didn’t have matinee-idol looks and/or that backstory of never once having sung in front of his parents, I’m not sure the judges would’ve been quite so enamored of his solid but hardly spectacular rendition of “Superstar.” (Having mom and dad sneak through that planetarium tunnel to witness the audition from the sidelines was a nice touch of drama, though. Well-played, Uncle Nigel!) To me, this audition was more significant for showing us Keith Urban is man enough to cry on national television (dude really is a charmer, no?) and for Nicki conjuring up the nickname “secret squirrel” for Clifton.

* Is it just me, or did Season 11 Hollywood Week hopeful Johnny Keyser seem to have regressed in terms of vocals and charisma with his rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness”? I mean, he threw in so many unnecessary runs, I was surprised the song wasn’t wearing a pair of Reeboks. (Sorry.) No way that warranted a Golden Ticket, but I suspect the judges had to follow some pre-determined marching orders to bring some familiar faces to the next round. Whether or not Uncle Nigel shows us footage from last year of Johnny continuing to sing while one of his groupmates collapses in a heap/hanging in a hot tub when he should’ve been practicing will let us know if he’s being groomed as an inspiring Colton Dixon comeback story or simple cannon fodder.

* I immediately fell hard for the plainspoken cynicism of “beginner fire performer” Kez Ban, who looked into the camera and noted that if she was destined for the blooper reel, to just let her know so she could head back home without embarrassing herself or her mom. This sensitive artiste knows all too well the horrors of the reality TV genre, and yet it turns out she had nothing to worry about. Her jazzy, unfussy spin on “I’ve Got No Strings” (from Pinocchio) showcased a fantastic tone, but it was her followup — playing guitar and belting an original track called “Wandering” — that proved downright revelatory. Kez, unlike so many Idol auditioners who dubiously choose to perform their own stuff, can seriously, seriously write. I rewound the audition twice, and if “Wandering” was on iTunes right this minute, I’d buy it and play it on repeat a couple dozen times. Kez’s voice has a hypnotic drive to it, and even her lyrics about azure skies and wandering the streets of Chicago were pretty solid. Add to it that Kez doesn’t think she should actually win Idol — that honor should go to a 17-year-old girl who’s dreamed this dream her whole life — and I’ve got to say I’ll be devastated if she doesn’t advance directly to the live shows. (Yes, Kez is this year’s Tami Gosnell or Deanna Brown. And yes, I still listen to my Tami Gosnell and Deanna Brown CDs to this very day.)

* Finally, we’re back to dapper cutie Lazaro, with his turquoise shirt and purple bowtie, looking like a waiter at a kicky Miami eatery. Was his vocal the best of the night? Not by any stretch. But the kid was so visibly nervous — sweating profusely, borderline trembling, and on the brink of tearful collapse — that I think it’s only fair to give him a one-time pass on any minor tremulousness that crept into his vocals, no? If his confidence can bloom once he gets to Hollywood Week, methinks Lazaro could quickly eat Johnny Keyser’s Season 12 Heartthrob sandwich.

* Oh, and two other things. Did any of you catch The Voice grad Jamie Lono in the montage of rejected singers? (His single “I Think I Like You” is damn good…ch-ch-check it out on iTunes!) And did any of you notice Colton Dixon’s sister Schyler in the montage of Golden Ticket getters? What missed opportunities to keep those auditions from our eyes and ears! Blerg!

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the American Idol Season 12 Chicago tryouts? What did you think of the Nicki-Mariah bickering? And who was your favorite Golden Ticket recipient? Sound off in the comments, take our poll below, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

WATCH: Lazaro Arbos Wows Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey

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