Country music superstar Martina McBride was the latest guest judge for the "Judge Cuts" round of "America's Got Talent," complete with her own golden buzzer to send an act straight through to the live shows.
Of course she was going to use it, which meant only six other acts of the 18 performing had a shot to advance. This is the most brutal round of any competition show, and the most competitive, and this week's batch of contestants was one of the strongest we've seen in years.
The show also gave us one of the scariest acts ever on "AGT" as The Sacred Riana legit terrified Mel B so much the judge had to run away from her chair and leave the theater. This young lady commits so fully to her character and performance, she is genuinely spooky in a way all those found footage films wish they could pull off.
She again killed it, but she wasn't the only one. There were several great acts that had to get cut simply because there wasn't room for them with so few spots advancing. If the judges give second chances to any of the eliminated contestants, my guess is it will be someone(s) from tonight's show.
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Howie Mandel, Mel B, Martina McBride, Heidi Klum and Simon Cowell. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. For this stage of the competition, it's just about getting through to the next round, so I'll give my vote alongside the judges. Each night, I'm gonna rank them from worst to first to see who emerges as my Top Seven each night.
(comedian) We only got one joke, and I hope that wasn't his best material. It was a lame joke I've actually heard told different ways over and over again about how if your waist is supposed to be half your height, then you need to get taller. Yuk yuk yuk.
The Pac Dance Team
(dancers) This was way better in concept than execution. The dancing looked amateurish at best, and there was nothing visually exciting about their moves. All of the spectacle was in costuming and staging, which is rather missing the point of a dance team. With the caliber of dance we've seen on this show, there's no way this is on the same level. It's a high school dance team and it shows.
(singer) We only got a snippet of Kazi's second audition here, but if that was her song's highlight, it was incredibly underwhelming. Her voice is very indie singer-songwriter, but seems more suited for a coffeehouse than the "AGT" stage.
OC Music & Dance
(performing arts) I'm not sure this was anything more than a very good school concert, which admittedly is where these kids came from. Parents would be thrilled and so proud of their kids, but for the "AGT" stage it just didn't have enough to really make it stand out. I loved the idea of combining orchestra, choir, modern band and soloists on Kesha's "Prayin'," but it wasn't enough to make me love what they did with it.
(singer) Once again, she gave a confident and solid vocal, but it was perhaps too karaoke. She sounded like someone who is a potentially great singer, but just doesn't push herself. And then she forgot the lyrics before the song even had a chance to push her voice to the next level and really dazzle us. Looks like she cracked under the pressure.
Jules & Jerome
(acrobats) This high-flying seesaw act felt very limited the first time around, so I was skeptical that they could raise it up a notch and make this a spectacle people would pay money to see. I didn't see anything more this time than they gave last time.
(singer) Angel was criticized the first round for sounding too old-fashioned, so he took on Bruno Mars this time and managed to also make it sound old-fashioned and dull. He has a great voice for a kid in the sixth grade, but I'm not sure there was enough flare to that vocal performance to really stand out in a variety show.
(musician) This tenor sax player knows how to play his instrument well, channeling the musical and popular prowess of Kenny G, but there's no way that's enough to carry a show like "AGT."
(singer) We only saw a few segments from this performance, but these martial-arts inspired acrobats are the real deal. There were some amazing stunts throughout that routine. It wasn't clear from the edit if this is a dance crew or just like a gymnastics team because there were no real elements of dance or musicality. Instead, it was just a tour de force of flips and tricks, though nothing that absolutely blew me away.
(acrobats) This still seems like a fairly limited act visually, but it is nevertheless breathtaking to watch. The acrobatics are always phenomenal and the strength, balance, control and trust are just through the roof. They've upped the ante with a blindfolded double somersault and that was pretty damned impressive. They found a way to up the ante and make it even more exciting.
(singer) Another kid singer, but Jeffrey is in a class of his own with the power, control and range of his voice. To prove it, he took on Whitney Houston, who's challenging for women to sing. There's a sweet timbre to his voice as well that draws you in to his performance, even though he barely moved during that performance. It's an infectious voice beyond his years, though it sounded like he was a little flat on some of the bigger notes (perhaps afraid to really reach that high). You talk about a journey contestant, this shy, 13-year-old kid could have an epic transformation into vocal diva by the end of this show.
(blacklight dancers) Mad props for the storytelling and creativity of the piece, even if all of the elements didn't hit equally hard or well. There have been stronger blacklight dance troupes on this show before, but this group has some really mythic-level stories they're telling, which makes it feel like the stakes are larger than life.
(comedian) Oliver's goth persona is a perfect match for his self-deprecating humor, and he really brought it with some sharp barbs pointing at himself. His delivery is on-point for the character he's presenting, and his timing is just about perfect. I love a comedian with a unique point of view and presentation, and Oliver is absolutely someone to remember. More importantly he's genuinely funny.
Quin and Misha
(dancers) Boy, this pair really upped the ante in performance and challenge level. And while it's not the sharpest ballroom dancing ever seen, the fact that Quin is days from turning 71 makies it absolutely breathtaking. The lifts and turns and throws would have proven challenging for people a fraction of her age, and yet she nails them with almost flawless precision. I'd like a little more stability from Misha to make the moves look smoother, as well as some consideration of transitions, but they are a pair I could absolutely watch over and over again. Martina was so moved, she gave them a well-deserved golden buzzer.
(singer) Simon pushed him into his second song choice, "Whipping Post," and it was a much better showcase for his southern-rock rasp. With elements of Chris Stapleton in his delivery, Guthrie really does have a dynamic voice and his auditions are absolutely unforgettable. In fact, I thought his first song was every bit as compelling, even if it wasn't so much a showpiece.
(cat trainers) No one thought it could be done, but this mother-daughter duo proved that cats can be trained, and make for a very entertaining act. And they did it. I don't know why this act gets me emotionally, but perhaps because their obvious love for the animals shines through. Plus, it's just really freaking amazing watching cats, who normally cannot be bothered to give any f---s, performing such intricate, impressive and controlled stunts. This is an act you will remember.
The Sacred Riana
(magician) Once again, she delivers one of the creepiest illusion acts ever seen on any stage, and it is brilliant. The audience is constantly kept guessing as she barely speaks, and when she does it's only in cryptic phrases. On top of that, the magic itself is impressive, as when she made her doppelganger (imaginary friend) erupt out of a tiny dollhouse on the stage. The storytelling is top notch, and what she does is true entertainment.
(musicians) This family band was engaging enough, and their first audition was absolutely heartbreaking, with a beautiful performance of an original song about their last moments with their mother, who passed away from cancer. Was it a one-hit performance? It sure wasn't. There's an authenticity to their original songs and their performance that you can't manufacture. You can believe their connection through the heartaches they've endured together, and they've emerged stronger for them. With only two songs down, I'm ready to buy an album written and performed by this band.
This was the toughest Judge Cuts round we've seen in a long time, with so many great acts battling it out, there were some genuinely good auditions that just didn't do it. While I skipped both kid singers, I gave it up for musical acts We Three and Noah Guthrie as the most ready to go.
My top acts were rounded out by the truly unique (Oliver Graves and The Sacred Riana), the unexpected (The Savitsky Cats) and an act with unlimited creative potential (UDI Dance). And, of course, I totally agreed with Martina McBride that Quin and Misha should move on.
And for the first time in this round, were were in near-perfect agreement about which acts should advance. It was good news for The Savitsky Cats, The Sacred Riana, UDI Dance, Noah Guthrie and We Three.
Unfortunately, they weren't as enamored with Oliver Graves as I was, instead choosing the amateurish The Pac Dance Team. I'll give it up that they are very creative in what they do, but they need to be more polished and better with the dance content to really steal the show. Oliver is such a unique voice in comedy, I hope this platform helps him push his act to the next level.
"America's Got Talent" continues with more "Judge Cuts" next Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.