MOM ROCK: Seattleite Jessica Ketola had the unexpected chance to sing with Sting onstage when the Police came to the Gorge Amphitheatre in 2008. Her family—Rachel, Ellie, Micah, David and Anna (from left to right)—won’t let her forget it. She sang “Every Breath You Take” at the Portland America’s Got Talent auditions Sunday at the Portland Convention Center. All Photos Courtesy of vivianjohnson.com
How to explain America’s Got Talent, the NBC reality game show now entering its fifth season? Think of it as the most awkward moments of a high-school talent show re-enacted at the 20-year reunion. Some members of the class have gotten really good, others are as bad as ever, and one or two have gone completely insane. Last Sunday and Monday, the AGT crew was in Portland looking for more talented and crazy people. It was the last and smallest stop on an eight-city audition circuit that included New York, L.A. and Chicago. Jason Raff, one of the show’s executive producers, says AGT chose Portland this year in part because “not many shows are filmed here.” In other words, we’re fresh meat.
Although this may be true, one thing PDX is not short on is talent. We hear about it all the time, a city buzzing with underemployed, overskilled citizens. Would this be the chance we’ve all been waiting for? By the looks of it, no. The 1,000-plus contestants (and supportive friends and family) who lined up in front of the Convention Center on Sunday morning at 6 am looked more like a game-show audience than a diverse array of local artists. Around 500 people auditioned on Monday, March 1, including a marching band from a Seattle high school.
Each waited around for hours only to endure a casting cattle call in which groups of five contestants got 90 seconds each in front of a panel of three producers. Like in the Olympics, you only get one shot to do it right.
After more than an hour of querying people in the never-ending line, I started to wonder if any Portlanders had made it into this hurricane shelter of burgeoning talent. I’d met a jazz singer from San Francisco, an Air Supply cover artist from Seattle, and a hip-hop dancer from Rathdrum, Idaho, before finally crossing paths with Tammy Dees, a bus driver from Hillsboro preparing to sing “Summertime,” which her friend described as “Gershwin’s attempt at opera.” Not surprisingly, it turned out musicians, singers and dancers are the meat and potatoes of AGT. An overwhelming majority of the contestants could be heard rehearsing 90-second song clips throughout the day, and acoustic guitars littered the vast exhibition hall like driftwood on an overcrowded beach.
At one point there was a “performance circle”—one of many orchestrated opportunities for the TV staff to entice everyone waiting to audition to group together and yell apparently TV-appropriate things like, “This isn’t Crazyland, this is Portland!” The circle included a young, epicene Michael Jackson impersonator, several Native Americans dressed as Native Americans who danced like Native Americans, and a number of kids who probably learned to dance from watching AGT. ..or maybe Dancing With the Stars.
Members of the group Airpocalypse drew attention to themselves during a midmorning a cappella rendition of their air-guitar act. Seattle’s Chuck Mung, 25, the reigning Northwest Regional Air Guitar Champ, said they “had a heavy-metal medley in store for the judges.”
There were hula-hoopers, jugglers, magicians and a young unicyclist duo who brought their own homemade ramps and jumps. Although the stakes were high, most contestants seemed to approach the event like Amanda Pewonka did. The local singer said she “found out about the auditions online, and thought it would be fun,” but “isn’t an avid fan of the show or anything.”
Indoor kite flying is a highly random—and seemingly unintuitive—talent, but Connor Doran, a 17-year-old from Bend, made it look natural. “I’ve been practicing whenever I can for over two years, mostly for competitions like this,” said Doran, who made clear his high expectations for today’s audition.
Near lunchtime I noticed a large contingent of nurses dancing in the open area where Doran was warming up. The 96 nurses, doctors, lab technicians and janitors from Portland’s St. Vincent and Providence hospitals all had on bright pink latex gloves, which they made good use of by doing jazz hands. “They’re auditioning for the show, but also promoting breast cancer awareness and building on the popularity of their YouTube video,” said a rep from Medline, which makes those pink gloves.
Not everybody had to wait in line. About 70 “queue” acts were contacted and scheduled to audition by AGT producers ahead of time, including Portland’s the Punk Group, a sardonic pair of electronic rockers known for their comedic flair. “[The casting agent] asked us if we could play our songs acoustically, and I was like, ‘No,’ so now we’re showing them a DVD of our stuff,” said Applegate. The Punk Group seemed confident about making it to the second round later this month, when a pruned-down group of around 100 Portland contestants will face the show’s celebrity judges—Howie Mandel, Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne—at the Keller Auditorium.
I also encountered a local banjo-gospel-folk-punk duo and four mustachioed female Freddie Mercury impersonators dancing to Queen’s “Old Fashioned Lover Boy.” They, along with all the other contestants, will find out if their acts are show-worthy next week, when callbacks go out. And combining a little bit of everything was 14-year-old Portlander Rachael Nedrow with her sport-stacking cup act, in which she did a “freestyle thing she made up” where cups were stacked and unstacked at an alarming pace. I, for one, thought it was pretty cool. That girl’s got—well, if not talent—it’s something.
MORE: Watch the second round of America’s Got Talent auditions at 1 and 6 pm Wednesday-Thursday, March 17-18, at Keller Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be requested through the PCPA Box Office or at pcpa.com. The new season of AGT premieres on NBC later this year.