The second audition episode of this season of "American Idol" marked the reality show's first foray into Pittsburgh, and judging by the way the golden tickets were flowing, the steel city has been avidly hording its talent for the past decade.
The hour-long installment seemed positively svelte compared to last night's episode, and there was apparently no time to highlight the worst of the worst, only the best of the best (no complaints here). The only prolonged "no" that was handed out was given to poor coal miner Shane Bruce, who wasn't quite polished enough to progress to Hollywood at his current level. We also saw an auditionee whose sister gave a more memorable performance than she did (for "planking" as her sibling sang), and a 15-year-old Bieberlite who didn't impress me half as much as he impressed the judges.
Still, Pittsburgh managed to unearth a couple of hidden gems -- between incessant ad breaks -- so here are the five most memorable auditions of the night.
1. Creighton Fraker
A self-proclaimed "starving artist" from New York City, Creighton took a nine-hour bus ride to journey to the "Idol" auditions, using his spare time to write a quirky song about the judges to impress the trio. His voice definitely had some hidden depths, but it was hard to tell, whether he actually had a workable sound between all the scatting. His second song, "Who's Loving You," was far better. Reminiscent of Justin Timberlake and Adam Levine, it resulted in Steven Tyler repeatedly calling him a "beautiful man." He demonstrated great range and unique phrasing the second time around (even if his facial expressions were a little kooky) and had all of the judges gushing giddily by the end of his performance.
2. Hallie Day
No talent competition would be complete without the prerequisite contestant sob stories, but I'm finding "Idol's" backstory segments far less overwrought than they have been in previous seasons -- or perhaps that's just in comparison to the torrent of emotional manipulation on "The X Factor." Either way, Hallie had obviously struggled for many years both professionally and personally, having overdosed on pills a few years ago. But her talent was undeniable. Her rendition of "I Will Survive" was imbued with such meaning and emotion that she made it all her own. She gave the classic a completely new spin, taking her time with the lyrics and belting them out with conviction. Steven liked watching her so much that he wanted to make her sing another song, but Randy and Jennifer wisely shut him down; the girl didn't need a second chance to make an excellent first impression.
3. Heejun Han
This Korean contestant was introduced as another potential Mawuena Kodjo. His low-energy intro and his bizarre comments about the size of Ryan's head (which is pretty small) screamed, "Let's all laugh at the weird foreign kid!" Luckily, he surprised the judges by actually being talented. Though he didn't have much of a range, his lower register boasted some smooth, sultry tones, and Michael Bolton's "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You" easily took him through to Hollywood.
4. Reed Grimm
Aside from having a very "Fantastic Four"-esque name, Reed also had a great voice. His song -- the theme for "Family Matters" -- seemed odd at first, but the 26-year-old made it work with a bluesy twist on the classic, complete with impressive scatting. His energy and passion were infectious -- it was entirely obvious that the guy had been performing with his family since he was two, because he was brimming with confidence -- and the judges happily bestowed three yeses.
5. Erika Van Pelt
This wedding singer blew Adam Sandler out of the water, and her husky take on "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" had Steven crooning along with obvious appreciation. Her phrasing was fresh, and her blend of notes would've put some of the other golden ticket winners to shame. She seemed to be able to run from high to low with no effort at all, and Randy praised her "low alto" tone, while Steven admired her confidence and sexiness. It was an easy three yeses to send her through to Hollywood.
Who stood out most on the second night of auditions? Weigh in below.
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on Fox. An extra episode will air on Sun., Jan. 22 at 10 p.m. EST.