In the second week on the big stage, most of the "American Idol" contestants vanquished their nerves and became a bit savvier about the elimination process, stepping out of their safety zones -- with varying degrees of success --to win all-important votes.

In the second week on the big stage, most of the “American Idol” contestants vanquished their nerves and became a bit savvier about the elimination process, stepping out of their safety zones — with varying degrees of success –to win all-important votes.

Tuesday was “British Invasion” night and the kids’ mentors were Peter Noone and Lulu, singers that neither the contestants nor the majority of the target audience had likely ever heard of. Noone was tasked with coaching the blokes, while Lulu guided the birds.

The perfs can be divided into three categories: Really good, just OK and ugly, or as the Brits might say: brill, much of a muchness and rubbish.

Four contestants have distinguished themselves as front-runners. Chris Richardson doesn’t have the best voice of the competition but certainly has star quality and let his personality shine through on a subdued and pleasant, if not spectacular, version of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” If he continues on this route, Richardson could make his way into the top five.

Young Jordin Sparks continues to impress, with a terrific version of the very maudlin “I Who Have Nothing,” showing poise beyond her 17 years. If she continues to grow at this rate, she has an excellent chance to make it to the finals.

Blake Lewis wisely heeded the judges advice from last week, adding just enough of his beat-box technique to contemporize the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” without bastardizing the melody. His sex appeal and sound effects should keep him safe for weeks to come.

And Melinda Doolittle, who stated that she had veered from her comfort zone with “As Long as He Needs Me,” continued to look both comfortable and thoroughly professional. Doolittle looks the one to beat at this point, with her confidence level rising week to week and the rare ability to turn a forgettable song into a gem.

In the middle of the pack are Chris Sligh, Stephanie Edwards, LaKisha Jones and Haley Scarnato.

Sligh was adequate but dull with his rendition of “She’s Not There” (also Zombies), and there’s really not much more to say about his performance. He’ll stick around but will have to step it up if he wants to be a serious contender.

Edwards misplaced both her passion and ability to sing an entire song in tune with an OK performance of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

Jones, who seemed a bit flummoxed by the night’s genre, made a poor song choice in “Diamonds Are Forever.” Normally the most reliable voice of the bunch, she failed to wow, resulting in her first misstep of the competition. The tune, plus her outfit and hairstyle, aged her as Simon adeptly pointed out. Jones will have to return to form to avoid the annual too-early ouster of the big-voiced diva (think Jennifer Hudson and Mandisa).

Scarnato, who continues to morph into Katharine McPhee redux, took perhaps the biggest risk, ditching her girl-next-door persona in favor of a sexpot-down-the-block image. Her vocals on “Tell Him” won’t win many votes but the hot pants should have the boys voting en masse and she’ll likely be around for at least another week.

Bringing up the rear were three truly awful perfs from Phil Stacey, Gina Glocksen and “Idol” punching bag Sanjaya Malakar.

Stacey once again confused upbeat with fun, shouting his way through a mostly off-key “Tobacco Road,” while Glocksen screeched the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Glocksen thought she “bonded with Lulu” but Lulu probably wasn’t thinking the same thing.

And then there was Malakar, who even the affable Noone struggled to find a way to be complimentary about. With his butchering of “You’ve Really Got Me,” he’s cemented his status as most perplexing top-12 choice in “Idol” history — Bucky Covington, Jasmine Trias and Jon Peter Lewis are now off the hook.

During the performance, a young girl in the audience began weeping uncontrollably, like her favorite puppy was dead. All across America, fans of the Kinks and music, in general, were likely crying as well.

Between giggles, judge Randy Jackson told Malakar it was his best performance so far — but the bar had been set pretty low. And Simon Cowell was left speechless, letting the welled-up girl speak for him.

Bottom 2: Chris Richardson (?!) and Stephanie Edwards
Voted off: Stephanie

American Idol - Week 10

Fox, Tue., March 20, 8 p.m.

Production

Taped in Los Angeles by 19 Prods. Executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Simon Fuller; director, Bruce Gowers. Running time: 2 HOURS.
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