BEVERLY HILLS – After the taped auditions and Judge Cuts, “America’s Got Talent” goes live starting this week as 36 surviving acts take the Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre stage in front of millions of viewers of the NBC talent competition.
Seven of the 12 acts performing in Tuesday’s opening quarterfinals contest (8 EDT/PDT) advance after Wednesday’s results show. Over the following two weeks, 14 others will move on to September’s semifinals.
Judge Howie Mandel loves the excitement and unpredictability of the live shows, where acts can wow – or disappoint – and anything can happen, as when a malfunctioning stage door revealed behind-the-scenes crew work during one of last season’s shows.
“Do (performers) rise to the occasion and handle all the pressure that the live shows offer? Can they step it up from what they have done before?” he says. “People that I expect to be good have just crumpled in the moment, and people I wasn’t thinking about blew the roof off the place. That’s what I love about live.”
Singer Kodi Lee, left, gets a hug from his mother, Tina, after receiving a golden-buzzer advancement after his 'America's Got Talent' audition in May. He will return to the stage for the first live show on Tuesday. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC)
Regardless of how far they go, Mandel says, just making the live shows on summer’s most-watched program offers career benefits.
“You don’t have to win our show. You just have to be on our show to change your life,” he says. “We launch careers, I think, more than any other show on TV, per capita.”
Tuesday’s performers include three golden-buzzer singers – Kodi Lee, Luke Islam and Sophie Pecora – along with black-light painter Alex Dowis; danger act Bir Khalsa; singer Carmen Carter; the Emerald Belles drill dance team; girl group GFORCE; comedian/impressionist Greg Morton; the acrobatic Messoudi Brothers; the Voices of Service quartet; and singer Ansley Burns, who returns as a wild card after being eliminated in the Judge Cuts round.
See pianist and singer Kodi Lee move new "America's Got Talent" judge Gabrielle Union so much that she hit the golden buzzer on the Season 14 premiere
USA TODAY picked our favorite acts heading into the finals, and Mandel – who judges alongside Simon Cowell, Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union – offers his own thoughts. He calls two, Lee and Indian acrobatic dance team V. Unbeatable, leading contenders in Season 14.
Mandel is floored by Lee, Union’s golden-buzzer recipient, both for his piano and singing skills and his inspirational story.
Musician Sophie Pecora, the golden-buzzer selection of guest judge Brad Paisley, is one of 36 'America's Got Talent' acts who will perform in the live shows from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre. (Photo: Justin Lubin, NBC)
“Kodi Lee has been the most jaw-dropping surprise in 14 seasons. When he walked out on stage – he has autism, (is blind) and was with his mother – my heart was breaking. You just wanted it to go well,” he says. “When he touched those keys and started singing, I didn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.”
Mandel also is impressed by 15-year-old singer Pecora, who “is shades of Grace VanderWaal,” the Season 11 winner. “She’s able to tell her own personal story, and that’s very relatable.” He also praises Benicio Bryant, 14, who “doesn’t seem earthly.”
As a comedian, Mandel knows the need to instantly connect with an audience. He sees promise in Greg Morton, a 60-year-old comic impressionist, and Ryan Niemiller, who has a congenital birth defect in both arms.
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Comedian and impressionist Greg Morton will try to advance to the 'America's Got Talent' semifinals when he performs on Tuesday's live show. (Photo: NBC, Trae Patton/NBC)
“I love Greg Morton,” Mandel says. “He’s been toiling in the business for decades, and now people are buzzing about him: ‘Why haven’t I heard of him? Why don’t we see him?’ So, he’s already launched. He’s already what I would consider a winner, being able to get exposure.”
Niemiller “is another standout. He is such a joy. And, aside from him talking about his disability, I don’t notice it. He’s just a funny, lovable guy,” he says.
Mandel considers Eric Chien is at the same level as Shin Lim, the Season 13 and “AGT: The Champions” winner.
“Last year, I was totally awestruck by Shin Lim and this year, I think Eric even took it further for me with the coins and that table and his vest changing,” he says. “I don’t know what he has in store for us.”
V. Unbeatable received guest judge Dwyane Wade's golden buzzer for this performance during the Judge Cuts round of NBC's 'America's Got Talent.' (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC)
Mandel is mesmerized by V. Unbeatable, the acrobatic dance troupe in which some members grew up in devastating poverty in Mumbai, India.
“When you see the precision, the height, the speed and the palpable feeling of what it means to these people, that excitement is beyond description,” he says. “These kids, a lot of them live on the streets and don’t have parents and they’re just looking for some way to have a new and better life.”
Mandel appreciates Bir Khalsa, a danger act from India that features hold-your-breath, blindfolded mallet pounding.
Bir Khalsa's death-defying stunts drew a visceral reaction from viewers, including 'America's Got Talent' judge Howie Mandel. (Photo: Trae Patton, NBC)
“These are three guys, one of them a giant, who are doing something death-defying. When you have a visceral reaction to what somebody is doing on stage, that is above and beyond,” he says.
But can an unusual act win? “I hope so,” Mandel says. “I believe on our show they should be able to win.”
Gonzo is a Japanese tambourinist who shocked the “America’s Got Talent” judges with his performance.
America's Got Talent/NBC
Mandel sometimes advances unlikely competitors, even in the face of fan opposition. Case in point: Gonzo, who plays the tambourine on his face.
“People are mad at me, but I love Gonzo because (the act) is so silly and wonderful and the person is so committed,” he says. “I got hammered on social media: ‘You gave away the spot!’ But that’s something I’m going to remember more. I love the comedy.”
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