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'American Idol' hits high note with sick teen's performance


Kayden Stephenson.

“American Idol” went to Oklahoma City to cap its auditions. As most fans of the show know by now, Oklahoma is the home state of Carrie Underwood, the season-four winner so perfect it was like she came out of central casting. Small-town country girl, unpolished at first, grows before our eyes and wins wire-to-wire on her way to becoming a country music star and hockey wife. Perfect.

So you might think that “Idol” would play that up this year, show us a lot of nervous young women unleashing that hidden talent within. In fact, what we saw were mostly a bunch of singers, very unlike her, come sweeping down the plain, and while five hopefuls got golden tickets, there was nobody that looked to be a threat to join Underwood as a winner.

Well, the possible exception was 16-year-old Kayden Stephenson, who told the world he had cystic fibrosis and was likely to die by age 35 -- in the casual way that most folks would tell co-workers they were getting burgers for lunch. You’d have to have a heart made of stone not to be moved by a kid facing that kind of an illness, and he sang well enough that he could be the story of the season if he makes it to the live shows. Who’s really going to be able to resist voting for him?

Nate Tao also stood out as a likable sign-language teacher with two deaf parents who used his words effectively through song. He was also the best-dressed person in Oklahoma City, simply because he wore a tie.

Beyond that, Oklahoma City was bizarre. By far the most surprising success story of the entire audition round was Zoanette Johnson, who sang the Star Spangled Banner apparently as a salute to Barack Obama’s winning a second term. In doing so, she flounced around the stage and changed moods more often than Nicki Minaj changes hats, and somehow got a ticket to Hollywood anyway. Maybe she was great at her initial screening, or maybe the judges have a crystal ball that shows her being a success later, because beyond that this decision made no sense.

But at least she didn’t audition with a puppet. Halie Hilburn brought “Oscar,” the dog that serves as part of her ventriloquist act, and gave the puppet a chance to howl in her first song. Bringing a puppet is rarely a winning strategy, but it worked in this case.

Finally Karl Skinner, a “pizza chef,” made it to the next round as well. He had the best answer yet of anyone asked what kind of singer they’d like to be. “I wanna be uncomparable,” he said.

What do all of the auditioners have in common? None of them is anything close to Carrie Underwood. In fact, the closest thing to Underwood was some strange old man who crashed the auditions late. Oh, wait. That was Steven Tyler in drag.

Is he eligible? Because if so, he was the best bet Oklahoma City had to a winner, at least among those we saw on Thursday.

What did you think of Thursday night's performances? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

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