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'American Idol 13' recap: Jena Irene leads strong Top 11 week

"American Idol" Season 13 contestant Jena Irene completely dominated the Paramore song she sang on the Wednesday, March 12, 2014 show, her powerful voice opening up while remaining vulnerable, and received a standing ovation from Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. Credit: Fox / Michael Becker

It was a turnaround so complete that it was almost worthy of the big screen.

“American Idol” was truly terrible last week, but the Top 11 turned “Songs from the Cinema” week into something special.

Maybe it was because those who survive this week get to go on tour with the show this summer. Maybe there was some extra pressure as the show continues to struggle ratings-wise. After all, when the latest edition of “Survivor” is gaining on “Idol” and it gets beat by “Criminal Minds” in the 9 p.m. hour, something is wrong.

Nevertheless, it seems the Top 11 (and their handlers) got the memo, with more than half of them turning in surprisingly strong performances.

Unfortunately, show producers weren’t necessarily as good, with the live show running past the one-hour mark, and that’s even without the judges saying anything about Malaya Watson’s performance or the usual roundup or goodbyes. Did they forget how to time a show? Because it seemed they spent plenty of time letting Harry Connick Jr. defend himself from charges of being too harsh and his dig at Randy Jackson about creating the “In it to win it” catch phrase.

In any case, there seems to be a widening gulf between those who have a shot to win the show and those who don’t.

Here’s how they stacked up this week:

1. Jena Irene, “Decode”: From the bottom three to the top? It’s quite the recovery for Jena, who still has to endure jokes about her name, for some reason. She completely slayed the Paramore song, her powerful voice opening up while remaining vulnerable, and received a standing ovation from Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban.

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“There’s a ferocity when you perform,” Urban said. “It’s like hurtling on the edge of a cliff in a car and I don’t know if we’re going in. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s exhilirating.”

Lopez even pleaded for her. “America, please get on board with this,” she said, before telling her, “You’re the real thing.”

2. Malaya Watson, “I Am Changing”: We don’t know what the judges thought of Malaya’s version of the “Dreamgirls” classic because someone got carried away with the unfunny casting call bits. Too bad because, Malaya’s performance probably would have generated an interesting judge’s response. Most of it was incredible, but she does let her emotions get the best of her at times, leading her to overshoot some notes. Is that a bad thing? Well, Connick would probably say it was, but this was a powerful, emotional showcase for the teen that was thrilling to watch.

3. Caleb Johnson, “Skyfall”: Caleb has soul! Who knew? The wild rocker treats the Adele song with cool restraint, making him seem like a completely different person. (He even has Adele’s hairstyle!) His remarkable control showed that he knows how to handle his big voice, as well as offer big performances. He gets a standing ovation from Urban, who applauds his song choice. In a different week, this would have been the standout performance.

“I loved that,” Lopez said. “It took us away from the rock thing, but it still was you.”

Even Connick was beside himself. “That was fantastic,” he said. “You’re going to be very hard to beat.”

4. MK Nobilette, “Make You Feel My Love”: In another impressive turnaround, MK moves from two weeks in the bottom three to what should be safety with a gorgeous version of the Bob Dylan classic. She still seems nervous and uncomfortable with eye contact, but her voice was lovely and she delivered the song as if she wrote it. She certainly felt it.

“There’s a beautiful subtlety to what you do,” Lopez said, adding that she recalls k.d. lang.

“There’s little glimpses of who you can be as an artist,” Urban said.

5. Alex Preston, “Falling Slowly”: In another strong comeback from last week, Alex delivered a lovely, wrenching version of the Oscar-winning “Once” ballad that also showed a strong emotional connection. “It’s really nice to see something simply stated and elegantly done,” Connick said. “I’m really proud of you, man.”

6. C.J. Harris, “Can’t You See”: His take on the Marshall Tucker Band was polished and powerful, though a little too buttoned-up compared to other competitors. He still landed a standing ovation from Urban. Lopez called him a frontrunner.

“It was killer, man,” Urban said. “You completely nailed that.”

7. Majesty Rose, “Let It Go”: Poor Majesty Rose got swallowed up by the “Frozen” song, though she tried valiantly to hang on. “You really are, to me, a mystery,” Connick said, though he said it was a strong performance.

Lopez said she has the talent to do anything she wanted. “You choose,” she said.

8. Sam Woolf, “Come Together”: Could the cute boy be in trouble? Don’t count on it. Even though the flash polls that the showed early on had him trailing, the tween girls will rise up and save him -- this week, at least -- by this morning. His take on the Beatles was nice, but too laid back. Connick called it an average performance.

“It’s like baby rock star,” Lopez told him. “We need big rock star.”

But Urban hit the nail on the head, joking, “Girls just don’t like you at all, Sam.”

9. Dexter Roberts, “Sweet Home Alabama”: The Lynyrd Skynyrd song is not really built for a singing competition song, seeing as it’s more a guitar-playing showcase than a vocal one. Dexter’s take was very down-the-middle, with Urban urging, “You gotta put your Dexter-ism in there.” However, Connick admitted that Roberts’ strategy of picking popular songs makes him hard to beat.

10. Ben Briley, “Bennie and the Jets”: He slowed down the Elton John classic and kind of muffed the trademark stutter with a lack of commitment. “It felt like a lackadaisical walk through the song,” Connick said, “Sort of pointless.” Um, yes.

11. Jessica Meuse, “The Sound of Silence”: Her take on Simon and Garfunkel wasn’t bad, but in “Idol” terms it was worse than that -- boring. Then, the band messed up and made her worse. Urban told the bar-singing veteran to realize she’s in a different environment and use the silence.

BOTTOM THREE: Jessica, Majesty, Ben

SHOULD BE ELIMINATED: Jessica

WILL BE ELIMINATED: Jessica

ACTUALLY ELIMINATED: Ben

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