American Idol Day 5: The Freaks Come Out In Omaha



Auditions: Omaha, NE

The seemingly endless parade of auditions continues, as American Idol breaks new ground and pays a visit to America’s Heartland: Omaha, Nebraska. After the opening fervor of Season 7, the show’s pitch has begun to drop a bit: the judges look shopworn, the contestants ape earlier contestants and even the montages have a recycled air. But the city still deserves a shot, so let’s meet the best and worst of the sprawling Midwest and flip through American Idol’s Omaha Yearbook:

Most Likely to Succeed: Chris Bernheisel has the kind of enthusiasm Idol likes to reward: in the the 25-year-old’s pre-audition tape, he threatens to explode, sending happiness flying everywhere. He’s also savvier than most Idol hopefuls, having brought gifts for Simon, Randy, and an absent Paula (her plane was delayed and she missed the first few auditions). An avid Kelly Clarkson fan, he performed a flat “Since U Been Gone” punctuated with a wobbly handstand in the middle. Without Paula around to play off, Simon was uncharacteristically un-cruel in his assessment: “I love bribes, but the singing wasn’t good enough.” Denied a chance for musical stardom, Chris made a plea for a red-carpet-commentator position. Never give up, buddy.


Most Likely to Fail: Jason Rich from Stout, IA illustrates everything Idol came to the Midwest for: strapping farmboy looks, a quaint backstory (he’s a part-time farmer from a town of 500), and a country dream. But the 21-year-old couldn’t remember the words to “When You Say Nothing at All” (an irony unremarked upon) and stopped and started three times. This sort of choking will never and Idol make — and Simon said as much — but without Paula, mercy reigned, and Jason was sent along to Hollywood.


The Halftime Show: Jason’s repeated flubs occasion one of Idol’s grimmest montages ever, full of lost souls forgetting the lyrics. Was this a covert promotion for Fox’s Don’t Forget the Lyrics? Back to the competition, please.

Gym-Class Hero: Rachel Wicker is a brassy country blonde whose real talents may lie beyond the realm of song: She’s won six arm-wrestling championships, a hook which Idol was very willing to exploit. The 23-year-old has a solid country voice, and delivered an admirable LeAnn Womack cover, but with enough of Womack still in it that Simon told her she performs as if she’s reached the end of a long and troubled career. Nevertheless, she was sent on to Hollywood, though not before arm-wrestling the recently-arrived Paula, who is starting to exhibit the kind of is-she-or-isn’t-she-high nuttiness longtime Idol watchers have been craving since day one.


There’s One at Every High School: Goth chick Sarah Whittaker, in pancake makeup and vinyl overcoat, used to wrestle professionally under the moniker Lady Morgue, which should surprise no one. Unfortunately, her singing voice closely resembles the banshee laugh that was Lady Morgue’s hallmark, and she’s too weird for Hollywood. Next.


She’s All That: Adorable, skittish Samantha Sidley — who flew in from Los Angeles — performed a spot-on cover of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.” She had got the nervous charm of a late bloomer, waiting to be discovered by the high school boys — or, in this case, their equivalent in maturity, Simon and Randy. Her thoroughly excellent performance was obscured by Ryan Seacrest’s guest-judging, a ploy by the Idol producers to enliven the lackluster Omaha auditions. Never mind all that: She’s on to Hollywood.


The So-Called Life: Drama and tears are as big a part of high school as acne, and Idol can’t resist the siren call of a sad story. Enter 17-year-old Angelica Puente, who now lives with her grandmother after tensions with her father escalated at home. She’s a mimic more than a singer, but her power-pop belt suited Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” and she was sent on to Hollywood — with a warning to be more original. Outside the judging room, Ryan called her father, who lovingly proclaimed, “She’s always been my American Idol.” Cue the credit roll!


The Kenickie: With his rocker’s persona and rocker’s lamentable hair (half faux-hawk, half-sideswept bangs, half-regrettable Manic Panic highlights), 24-year-old bartender David Cook breezeed in with a strained version of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” He was deemed good enough for Hollywood but warned to get a little personality.


Mr. Personality: Idol loves humiliating weirdos, especially at auditions, but it’s characteristic of Omaha that we’ve seen bigger, better, and weirder before. Johnny Escamilla, clad in sequins, did a singing, jumping, tap-dancing “Shout!” before a panel of horrified judges. “I have to tell you,” said Simon to the 18-year-old, “that was everything I hated.”


The Homecoming Queen: Even after a pretty lackluster hour, Idol knows how to end big, and in trotted 23 -year-old Leo Marlowe from Charlotte, IA. He’s from an even tinier town than Jason Rich (only 200 people!), sported the sort of watered-down-hipster look Idol craves (is there an American Apparel in Charlotte where Leo buys those deep-V’s?), and sung a passable “Song for You.” He was happy to boast about his popularity, but not too proud to burst into tears and demand hugs when he was passed along to Hollywood.


Like high school, this episode of Idol was awkward, painful, and years too long. The antidote will likely be administered tonight, when we journey with Idol to Miami.

–Matthew Schneier

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