Tom Cotter performs on "America's Got Talent." (Virginia Sherwood/NBC )
If you needed proof that "America's Got Talent" is enjoying a particularly strong, diverse slate of competitors this season, you could find ample evidence on Tuesday night's performance show. The lineup for the season's first semifinal round included terrific singers, dancers, comedians and variety acts, many of them worthy of moving on to the finals. Sadly, only three of the 12 acts performing will advance.
With so much competition, "it's gonna be a matter of inches" separating the finalists from the rest, Howard Stern predicted. He warned that the judges would be particularly critical as a result. Stern, if not Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel, did seem to be trying to bestow a tougher brand of love, but the judges also hopped up repeatedly to applaud the performances.
Who will go through? Who can really predict? Certainly, although the audience doesn't always agree with the judges, it often does. But the judges themselves seemed overwhelmed. Mandel, who was in a superlative mood, called the show "the most amazing episode this season" and said America had a tough job on its hands.
Here are the contenders:
Andrew De Leon: This self-trained, strange-contacts-sporting goth opera singer sang a sweet "Ave Maria" that was a hit with the audience, but less so with some of the judges. Stern said he wished De Leon had had some actual vocal training and that his act sometimes felt "a bit strange." Osbourne, meanwhile, said she'd reviewed De Leon's performances and discovered him to be "off" vocally. She also suggested that De Leon ditch his goth look in order to be taken more seriously, which, valid or not, seemed like rather a low blow, since De Leon had been seeking acceptance for his style as much as his singing.
Todd Oliver (and Irving, the talking dog): I thought Oliver's late-night talk-show setup was a bit schticky and over-the-top. His material was just OK. (Oliver, fielding faux questions from Irving fans: "How can I get my dog to stop eating doo-doo?" Irving: "Learn how to cook.") Definitely not as strong as his performance in last week's wild-card round. The judges ate it up, though. Osbourne said he'd gotten "better and better and better." Stern said he was "spot on," "professional" and definitely "a headline act," declaring, "This act deserves to go through."
Donovan and Rebecca: This talented acrobatic couple took Stern's advice and highlighted Rebecca's remarkable strength. He lifted her, then she lifted him … wearing super-high heels! They even did a terrifying neck hang. Was it enough for them to go through? Osbourne gave them a standing O, but Stern wasn't sure the act translated on TV. Mandel contended that they should be among the three finalists chosen, and Osbourne paid Rebecca an even greater compliment. "I've got some cheese, but I don't have a cheese grater," she asked. "Can I rub it on your abs?"
Edon: This 14-year-old singer revealed his previous performances had netted him a few marriage proposals, then he played right to his teen-girl fan base with One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." Mandel and Osbourne were on their feet. Mandel said Edon was the best singer in the whole competition. Osbourne hailed his song choice and called him "amazing." Only Stern was unimpressed, telling Edon he was a "cute kid" but that he was "a little bit bored by that song." We'll see if Edon's teenage fans agree.
The Scott Brothers: This fraternal dancing duo got all metallic and danced like robots with remarkable technical precision. Stern said that, while he thought it was the best dance act in the competition, he was worried about audience fatigue. Mandel said he didn't see "that one move" that would make America cast their votes.
Eric Dittelman: The jovial mind reader -- now responding to popular demand by redubbing himself, simply, Dittelman -- successfully predicted how Stern would color in a caricature of himself. That was impressive enough, but Dittelman also turned his skills on the audience, manipulating us all into visualizing something specific -- a triangle inside a circle. In a way, he revealed himself to be a controller of minds rather, perhaps, than a reader. Either way, heady stuff.
Turf: The contortionist dancer -- once a favorite for the finals -- said he was going to incorporate more dance into his act. Alas, the new twist deprived his act of some of its excitement. Will Turf cede territory to other contenders? Mandel dubbed him the best dancer in the competition and begged the audience to vote for him. Osbourne complimented Turf on his "sexy old lasers." But Stern noted a certain similarity in Turf's act from week to week and seemed concerned that could cost the "tremendous performer" his shot at moving on.