Every season, the live performances on “America’s Got Talent,” leading up to the finals, add a dimension of excitement and expertise that is unmatched by any other TV competition. Tonight’s August 11 first-dozen acts were arguably the strongest group overall in the program’s decade history. A few faltered, but many more did their best, and better. They left an impression on the huge audience filling Radio City Music Hall, and on the judges. Song, dance, a really cheeky dummy, and even dogs all were in on the fun, and host, Nick Cannon, took his wardrobe ensemble inspiration from Sinatra’s look, being accompanied by the Rockettes and “Shut Up and Dance,” but no one was being quiet this week. Even the voting started via Google and the website as the show was in progress, so no one was waiting around!
Japanese animation dancers, Siro-A, had the judges’ panel and the audience on a string, going whatever way they pulled to the tune of Lenny Kravitz’ “Are You Gonna Go My Way?.” Going from guitars to boom boxes, to giant heads of Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, and Mel B, the group got straight ovations across the panel to start the night. Mel B raved “That’s how you open a show!,” while Howie had fun about being “big-headed.” Howard Stern said that if the competition had a college, this group were already “college grads,” and Heidi said their name should be “Siro A+.” With everything CGI technology allows these days, there are no limits to what can be flashed onto a screen, but there’s something missing of the human touch, hearing the inflection of a voice, seeing an expression, that cannot come from any computer programming. Alondra Santos was granted a second chance when a spot opened unexpectedly, and she certainly made the best of the blessing. So vivacious, colorful, and exuberant, the 13-year-old proved to anyone with ears that her voice was spectacular, and she broke out of her mariachi mode, as Howard Stern said, and became completely contemporary. The judges noticed the big step up, particularly Mel B, who loved her a cappella opening. Heidi Klum loved the “you” that came across from Alondra, and Howie said that her performance was like watching “a beautiful flower blossom.” No matter what happens in this competition, this young lady has an incredible gift, and an incredible future. Contortionist, Vita Radionova, calls what she does “poetry of the body,” and she moves the way that no one with any bones should be able to, even in a sparkling gray cat-suit. Her flaming red hair only added to her sultry factor, and Heidi made it clear that she thought the men of America enjoyed Vita’s performance. Mel B was somewhat underwhelmed, saying the performance didn’t reach the high level of the last, and there wasn’t enough “wow factor.” Howard said that it would be a tough decision for Vita tonight, and Howie refrained from comments “because mine are all a little pervy,” he told Nick.
Arkansas singing trio, Triple Threat, took it on the chin this time, daring to take on a male version of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” and it didn’t sail. First Howard, then Howie Mandel, then Mel B gave the dreaded X, only Heidi listening to the full performance. “It did not deserve the X,” she maintained, at least commending their courage. Howard Stern countered that “your charm went out the act,” and Mel B said that they “butchered it,” referring to her favorite song, and railing that their harmonies were never synched. Howie Mandel simply said that they “buckled under the pressure,” but by any measure, it wasn’t good night for the boys.
Brothers, and dance partners, The Gentlemen, got some ribbing for using some of their same signature moves from Mel B and Howard, but their slick, classy style, that is part Usher, part Astaire, is something special to watch, and they charmed the socks off the audience. Heidi Klum said they had “Big Apple swagger,” Howie Mandel said that he simply liked them, and Howard said it would come down to comparison, and he wondered if they were different enough to stand out. The vote will tell. Magician-comedian, Piff, the Magic Dragon, put his precious Chihuahua, Mr. Piffles into a wrapped up box hoisted above his head on stage, and then asked Howie to choose the boxes where “his only companion and sole source of income” was NOT. Very fortunately, Howie correctly named boxes 2, 1, and 4 as not holding the pooch, while they were kicked, chopped and even put through a wood chipper. Howie made sure that he stayed on stage to see that the sweet pup was in box 3, quiet as ever, and still fully assembled. Heidi Klum called the act “game of groans” instead of “game of bones,” not loving me dog in a box idea, or all of the stage extras, just wanting Piff and his usual sarcasm onstage. Mel B said “it worked, kind of, “ as Howie assured he was never in on the joke, and that it was a great trick. Howard agreed it was a great trick, but not Piff’s best performance. The Magic Dragon didn’t want to leave the stage, even ordering Chinese, and sticking Nick Cannon, or maybe “America’s Got Talent” with the tab! Singer and stay at home dad, Benton Blount, did all he needed to do to connect with the audience on Christina Aguilera’s “Say Something I’m Giving Up on You,” his wife and son lovingly looking on. “A really good job,” Howard Stern commented, as Heidi Klum praised Benton as “an honest, real performer” who lets his heart be heard. Howie Mandel said he knew Benton had a moment, just like his wife did. Mel B heard nerves coming through at first, but then praised Blount for being able to settle himself down into the song.
Craig and Micheline got more exposure in this performance than they have gotten thus far through the whole competition. Their “power dancing” with strength, balance, and dance elements, is different than any of their competitors, but Howie Mandel wondered “Will it be for America?” The panel enjoys this act with everything “all combined” as Mel B expressed, but whether all they do is interpreted through a small screen will be measured in the tally tomorrow.
Darling and self-effacing comic, Drew Lynch, took a little time to settle in with the audience, asking “Remember me?” but once he started clicking with his routine about his service dog, and how everyone asks the dog questions instead of him, who can “talk kinda,” and ending with his cat, who has Tourette’s, there was a surge of audience approval and love. Howie, who gave Drew the golden buzzer, was beaming with pride, and said, “you check every box for me.” Mel B reminded Drew that he did not give himself enough credit for being “very funny, as Howard affirmed what a good writer Drew was. Heidi still loves how the comedian delights in laughing at himself. High bar heroes, Showproject, had a glowing routine along with their blue lighted pants, but the panel all saw that it didn’t quite synch up with their past auditions. Howie and Howard wondered whether America would see it as Olympic caliber or entertainment. Heidi unabashedly “loved it,” particularly the bare- chested parts. Ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin, and his buddy, Sam, were on the outs, so the master decided to allow the puppet to be “hands-free,” walking offstage, and the result was hilarious, with Howard and Sam having quite a conversation, and then Sam asking Howard quite a question. “Gen-i-us” was Howard’s assessment of the daring decision to go offstage, adding “best of the night.” Heidi still prefers “old-fashioned” side-by-side ventriloquism, but still applauded the act, amidst boos.
Samantha Johnson closed the night with “California Dreamin’” singing with herself alone atop a pillar, only scenic vistas behind her, and her supremely powerful voice doing all the rest. It was a stunning life-changing, career creating moment– the kind that only this show brings. Four standing ovations came, “Wowsa, wowsa, WOW” coming from Mel B, and Howard now saying “best performance.” Howie Mandel called Samantha a star, and Heidi said she was “the best singer” in the competition.
Tomorrow night will tell the seven performers chosen by vote, but here are some predictions: Siro-A, Piff, Paul Zerdin, Benjamin Blount, Drew Lynch, Samantha Johnson, and a toss-up between The Gentlemen and Alondra Santos.