The whittle while you work portion of "American Idol" -- the cast of 172 taken down to 24 in two fast hours -- has begun. Quick cuts and glimpses of off-key singing, forgetfulness and brilliance (four guys doing the Bee Gees with a human beatbox) restored energy to the show.

The whittle while you work portion of “American Idol” — the cast of 172 taken down to 24 in two fast hours — has begun.

Quick cuts and glimpses of off-key singing, forgetfulness and brilliance (four guys doing the Bee Gees with a human beatbox) restored energy to the show. But there’s a nagging feeling that a few good singers have been sent packing and some borderline cases have remained due to, as Simon Cowell might put it, an X factor — occasionally charisma, usually attractiveness.

The group show, in which the soloists creat trios and quartets, certainly throws some singers for a loop and for the first couple of seasons, it seemed an unfair way to judge the talent. But as the show has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that “Idol” producers want performers who can execute production numbers well from the get-go — and that means learning choreography and lyrics on the fly. It partially explains why the singers with theatrical backgrounds have landed in the final 12, but when it comes down to singing — and only singing — their glasses are only half full.

A few of this season’s singers really stumbled when they had to try new material. It’s as if they have spent their life perfecting a single song — Katharine McPhee and “Over the Rainbow” anyone? — and when it comes time to branch out they’re caught off guard.

There wasn’t a single singer capable of convincingly belting out “Be My Baby” in the group show, where the playing field is leveled by a limited repertoire from which singers may choose. These singers often make it clear there’s only one Aretha, Mariah or Whitney; now add Ronnie Spector to the list.

It was sad to see small-town Texan Bayley Brown depart. Poor girl seems tailor made for the show, especially considering the appeal of Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler over the last two seasons. It does not look like there’s much twang in the final 24.

Cowell laid down the law in this round — “do not forget the words” — and then the judges loosely applied it. Tuesday ended with massive dismissals; Wednesday concerned the removal of 16 folks on the bubble.

Judges found a staggering number of ways to tell contestants they had made it through, using awkward double negatives in an attempt to slightly confuse each nervous entrant. Facing the three judges, I am sure some of them hear the positive statement “you’re through” as a negative, as in finished, kaput, go home.

Not surprisingly, a couple of professional backup singers made it through with one, Melinda Doolittle, seemingly capable of going far. New father Philip Stacy has been impressive throuhgout and Chris Sleigh will have an instant army of fans. The kid, a bit goofy looking and paunchy, beams with personality and a sense of humor on top of his pleasant voice; he is clearly not Cowell’s idea of what the “Idol” winner should be, but he’s the type of contestant that will get people to tune in weekly.

American Idol: Week Five

Fox, Tue., Feb. 13, 8 p.m., Wed., Feb. 14, 9 p.m.

Production

Taped in Los Angeles by 19 Prods. Executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Simon Fuller; directors, Lythgoe (Tue.), Warwick (Wed.).

Cast

Judges: Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more