Last night marked the start of the finals of “American Idol” on the big stage at the Kodak Theatre with a huge band and a huge audience. Just as big were some of the performances, and there was a definite separation of classes between the talent that started to show.

The show started with a recap of some past winners and finalists who went on to nice careers, and then a bit on Diana Ross, who was the the focal point of song choice and coaching this past week. I would put Diana in the same category as a Stevie Wonder…that is, a living legend. So it was no surprise that most of the contestants were awestruck by her.

But on to the competition, and this week there were five classes of talent. Here is the recap:

THE REALLY GOOD

Melinda Doolittle has owned this class the last few weeks, but this time she had competition in Lakisha.
However, I’m crowing Melinda the favorite until she is actually dethroned, which may not happen. Melinda sang “Home” and it was, as usual, incredible. She is also the only singer in this thing that could pull that song off. I was thinking she sounded like a young Gladys Knight, and then Simon said that exact same thing. Randy said it wasn’t his favorite performance of Melinda’s but that it was strong, Paula said she is so exciting, and Simon said Melinda made a boring song fantastic. Amen to that.

Lakisha Jones sang “God Bless the Child” and was simply awesome. She had great control of her voice and the judges said so. Randy said it was sensational, and Paula said Lakisha looked beautiful. Simon said “You’ve got it” and that Lakisha and Melinda are in a different class of talent than everyone else. Again, amen to that.

THE GOOD

Jordin Sparks closed out the night in fine form, singing “If We Hold On Together.” At 17 years old this girl is talented way beyond her years. Randy said as much, and also added that he thinks this is a 3-singer race between Jordin, Melinda, and Lakisha. I’m not sure I’d go that far. Paula said Jordin has a natural gift, and Simon said it was a very very good vocal.

Stephanie Edwards sang “Love Hangover” and did a great job with a boring arrangement of the song. Randy said it was good but not Stephanie’s best. Paula didn’t like the arrangement and Simon said it was the wrong song choice and that she didn’t deliver last night. I’m not sure I agree with Simon. Thing is, Stephanie was still one of the best last night.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Phil Stacey redeemed himself a week after I thought he was going home. Phil sang “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and really did a decent job. Randy thought it was boring but a good vocal, Paula said the arrangement wasn’t uptempo enough, and Simon said Phil has a tendency to shout in the middle of songs. I thought it was better than the judges gave Phil credit for.

Blake Lewis took on a classic, “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and as usual added his own flavor to the arrangement. Thankfully though, he didn’t add any beatboxing and just focused on singing. Randy said Blake was good but that he doesn’t need to change the arrangements all the time, Paula said it was good enough for Blake to have a hit with the song (big stretch), and Simon said he “didn’t get it.”
Still, Blake is way safe.

Chris Richardson was also pretty good with his version of “The Boss.” Chris is a really good performer who looks and acts a bit too much like Justin Timberlake at times, but he still can do better. Randy said he overdid the arrangement and some of the vocal runs, Paula said he was the best guy of the night, and Simon said if you take away the performance, it was a “dreadful” vocal. I’m not sure about that. I think Chris is safe for a while too.

Gina Glockson is at the bottom of this group, because I think she was kind of boring and pitchy with her version of “Love Child.” Randy said it wasn’t his favorite Gina performance and was pitchy, Paula said she knows Gina can do better, and Simon said it was just okay.

THE BAD

Look, I’ve been pimping Brandon Rogers all along, but he continues to be less than impressive every week as this competition moves along. This guy is a great singer, but he keeps choosing songs that are too safe. Last night he did “Can’t Hurry Love” and not only was it middle of the road, but he forgot the words in the middle. Randy said Brandon looked more like the background singer that he is, and Simon said it was “a complete letdown.” I can’t say I disagree, but I think Brandon should be safe this week.

Chris Sligh took a big dive last night. He made a complete butchery of the arrangement to “Endless Love” and didn’t even perform it that well. Randy said it was a mess, Paula said Chris is trying to hard to be contemporary, and Simon said Chris “murdered” the arrangement. Chris is way too good to be in this group, but he just didn’t have it yesterday.

Haley Scarnato sang “Missing You” and was pitchy throughout. She is a cute girl with nice legs, but the dress she was wearing looked really strange. And I think the producers were going too much for the Katherine McPhee look. Randy said it was a valiant effort, Paula thought it was pitchy, but Simon surprisingly said it wasn’t that bad, and that Haley had a nice stage presence. My take? I have to say that Haley has a shot at going home this week.

THE REALLY BAD

Sanjaya just keeps getting worse, doesn’t he? This kid has no business being on that big stage, and it has never been more obvious than last night’s rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Randy said it was “not very good,” and thats being kind. He also commented that at least dude has nice hair.
Paula said Sanjaya didn’t grab the audience, and Simon said the only similarity between Sanjaya and Diana Ross is their hair. Look, America has taken this kid as far as he can go, but it’s time to pull the plug. He is so glaringly bad.

Another thing to note is that there was more witty banter and gay-bashing going on between Ryan Seacrest and Simon. For some reason, it was pretty funny last night. The judges seemed to really have fun and laughed a little instead of bickering, which was kind of refreshing.

So your bottom 3……Sanjaya, Haley and Brandon. And I think Haley is saved by the fact that Simon had nice things to say, and Brandon is just a much better singer than Sanjaya. I hope that America gets it right and keeps Brandon around, and finally does the right thing with Sanjaya.

We’re also going to be treated to a Diana Ross performance tonight, and that will likely make Carrie Underwood look like the lightweight that she is.

So there you have it America, we’ll find out tonight just how good a collective judge of talent you really are…