Even despite my inherent love as a reporter for the occasional happy, heart-wrenching human-interest story, I was skeptical of what I was about to sit through Tuesday night during a live taping of "America's Got Talent."
A miniature mariachi singer belting out a love ballad? Muscular men clogging in tight jeans in front of a massive American flag? Tiny dancers cartwheeling in nauseating succession? For two full hours?
This was not the Newark I knew. This was some alternate universe.
Since early July, NBC's ratings-topping "America's Got Talent" has been filming twice a week at NJPAC, drawing hundreds of out-of-towners to Brick City for the feel-good, all-American show that you can't help but fall in love with. I did.
After snagging two VIP tickets to Tuesday's quarterfinals segment – and, after sitting in 20 minutes of gridlocked traffic on Broad Street, which felt very much like Newark – West Orange Patch editor Mike D'Onofrio and I walked the "America's Got Talent" red carpet, snapped a cheesy picture and braced ourselves for the unexpected.
It was hard not to feel giddy at first sight of the AGT stage, an impressive glossy setup complete with streaming lights and moving backdrops. The audience is asked to assemble in their seats as early as one hour before the 8 p.m. show, so there's a lot of wait time, during which an energetic producer repeatedly reminded us to shut off all cell phones and resist heckling judge Howard Stern. (The no cell phone policy is serious stuff – security will boot you out to the lobby where Newark police supposedly await, as if they have nothing better to do.)
I lost count of the number of times the crowd erupted into "Baba Booey" chants in reference to Stern's executive producer Gary Dell'Abate, who was in the audience for the show, along with Stern's biggest fan, Mariann from Brooklyn. There was even a reference to Fartman during the show and producers were horrified when one classy audience member attempted to flash Stern during a commercial break. It was clear that much of the audience, largely middle-aged folks and old school K-Rock fans, were there to check out the sunglasses-wearing shock jock, and not for the entertainment.
But still, the night featured the season's best talent, according to judges Stern, Howie Mandel and Sharon Osborne, contestants lived up to expectations, with the exception of blips from Ulysses, a lovable, quirky performer whose minty green suit and poppy show tune was less than fresh, and cutesy folk-rock duo Eric and Olivia, who performed an offbeat rendition of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite." A curt Stern said it best: The two are charming musical performers suitable for a coffee shop, not the big stage.
The two hours, punctuated every five minutes with standing up and clapping until our hands were raw, flew by with each act somehow more impressive than the last.
There was one of Mike's favorites, 10-year-old Sebastien El Charro de Oro, who nearly brought the room to tears with his sweet mariachi performance, the dazzling Cape May dance team Unity in Motion with its inhuman acts of balance and the aptly named Horse, The King of the Nut Shots, who drew guffaws with his "Jackass"-styled, man-part-slamming performance (Mike covered his eyes for a good chunk of this one).
But sadly, their talent was not enough. To no one's surprise, America voted Wednesday to push amazing beret-wearing sand artist Joe Castillo, mesmerizing "earth harp"-playing William Close and the adorable Olate Dogs through to the next round. Also still in the running for the $1 million grand prize is Mike's other favorite, Eric Dittelman, a Criss Angel-esque mentalist – sans guyliner and bad clothes – who wowed judges with his "Deal or No Deal" mind trick, but to me seems too cliche to make it through another round.
As if America needs one more glorified magician.
The unsung talent of the show is certainly the two dozen or so stage crew that seamlessly transformed setups in between acts, not an easy task to complete during 90-second commercial breaks. They were as fascinating to watch as some of the other performances Tuesday.
There's still time to catch a live taping of "America's Got Talent" after it comes back from hiatus in mid-August. (Click here to get tickets.) Trust me, if you love watching the show on the boob tube, it's even better live (though some scenes are pre-recorded).
Our Patch predictions? Unlike Mike, who's rooting for Dittelman to take it all with his mind magic tricks, I'm putting my money on the Olate Dogs to come out as top dogs. It's completely un-American to not love cute, fluffy, cuddly creatures, let alone when they're doing backflips, handstands and sliding down playground equipment. Any online editor or television producer cognizant of good ratings gimmicks knows that.
Who's your favorite "America's Got Talent" act? Have you checked out the live show at NJPAC? Tell us in the comments below and vote in our poll.