February 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

'American Idol' contenders include 3 from Michigan

Jena Ascuitto, 17, is from Farmington Hills. (Michael Becker / Fox)

When “American Idol” visited Detroit over the summer, they found a number of keepers, including two Metro Detroiters who have made it to the season’s Top 30 contestants.

Jena Asciutto of Farmington Hills made it through to the next round of the competition on Thursday’s episode of “Idol.” The 17-year-old singer — who made a point to note her first name is pronounced “Geena” — was dubbed “The Sleeper” by judge Harry Connick Jr., who pegged her as one of the contestants to keep an eye on this season. (Asciutto was relieved to learn she didn’t earn her nickname for taking a nap while waiting in the holding room.)

Asciutto joins 16-year-old Malaya Watson of Southfield, the excitable tuba player from Southfield High School who made it through on Wednesday’s episode. Watson, who did an end zone dance when she moved to the next round, stood out with her showstopping Hollywood Week version of Fantasia’s “I Believe.”

Both Asciutto and Watson will compete on Tuesday’s “Idol,” the first live episode of the season. On Wednesday, the season’s Top 15 guys perform, and that pool includes Grand Rapids 26-year-old Maurice Townsend, the father of four who celebrated his advancement to the next round on Wednesday’s episode.

“I get to go home and tell my babies, my wife, that I made it,” Townsend said when he received the good news. “The Top 30, man!”

The three contestants are vying to become Michigan’s first “American Idol” winner. A few locals have come close: Westland’s Josh Gracin came in fourth place in the second season; Flint’s LaKisha Jones came in fourth place in Season 6; and Kalamazoo-by-way-of-Ypsilanti singer Matt Giraud landed in fifth place in Season 8. A fourth contestant, Sam Woolf, 17, has strong ties to the Detroit area; he grew up in West Bloomfield. Woolf is billed from Bradenton, Fla., where he lives with his grandparents.

There’s a twist in store for this season’s finalists, however. The judges are set to make a handful of cuts — five girls and five guys — before the live rounds begin, Fox announced Thursday. By the end of next week, the talent pool will be narrowed to 13, so more than half of the singers are set to go home.

There is one more twist afoot in the season’s Top 30. A total of 31 singers made it through — 15 girls and 16 guys. Two of the male contestants, Neco Starr of Atlanta and Ben Briley of Gallatin, Tenn., are vying for the final spot among the guys, and America will make the decision before next week’s live episodes.

After last years’ disastrous outing, “Idol” has settled into a comfortable groove so far this season. The judges, especially newbie Connick, have established a friendly rapport with one another while providing thoughtful, meaningful feedback to the singers.

The show has also cut a lot of the fat from previous seasons. Audition rounds focused almost exclusively on quality contestants, rather than the gag singers seen in previous years. The tone of the show has also shifted, where in previous years it ping-ponged between making fun of wannabe singers and using sob stories to make viewers care about contestants. This year’s show is more casual, not pushing to make viewers feel one way or another, but easing back and letting the contestants tell their own stories. It has made for a better show.

Several contestants have made an impression, including country-soul singer Casey Thrasher, San Francisco’s MK Nobilette — the first openly gay contestant in the show’s 13-year history — and the Michigan Three, as we’ll call them.

'American Idol'

8-10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

8-9 p.m. Thursday

Fox

agraham@detroitnews.com
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Malaya Watson, 16, is from Southfield. (Michael Becker / Fox)
Semifinalist Maurice Townsend, 26, is from Grand Rapids. (Michael Becker / Fox)