After all the drama about Israel hosting this contest, the Eurovision Song Contest went underway without an apparent hitch.  And KAN delivered a terrific show so far, with this show opening with a fabulous encore performance of Netta‘s “Toy“, featuring a ballad intro accompanying a semi-fictional biopic of little Netta inspired by the victory of Dana International (more on her later) 20 years prior and inspiring her to pursue her musical dreams even with the detraction by her peers.  Then, we are treated to Netta performing the song live and fostering positive body image by wearing a leotard.

The hosts this year are veteran hosts Erez Tal, Assi Azar, and Lucie Ayoub and model Bar Refaeli, Erez and Bar are the main stage hosts, while Assi and Lucie work the Green Room.  For me the Green Room hosts are the standouts–Assi charms with his hunky handsomeness and energetic interview style, and his distinctive Hebrew accent gives me the shudders the way some housewives might swoon over Fabio; meanwhile Lucie is very cool and unflappable and was a perfect, considerate interviewer.  Erez was also cool and competent.  Bar is the weakest link of this quartet, but she didn’t commit any serious gaffes so she’s all right.

Hosts: Assi Azar, Lucie Ayoub, Bar Refaeli, and Erez Tal

This year’s postcards also have a twist–instead of simply seeing the artists enjoying the sights of various Israeli locations, they also had to dance.  I actually enjoyed the postcard sequences as the postcards look like scenes from a Bollywood movie or a modern take on a movie musical (e.g., La La Land) hence making for a heightened sensory experience.  During the interval, they actually featured a mashup of the postcards set to a remix of Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta‘s 1978 winning song “A-ba-ni-bi“.

The interval act for this round is provided by Dana International, She offered a remake of Bruno Mars‘ 2010 hit “Just the Way You Are“, turning it into a ballad-turned-into-electro-dance rave-up, adding themes of self-affirmation and a plea for LGBTQ love rights.  Dana vocally doesn’t quite measure up to Bruno, but this is a worthwhile effort.

Now, I got seven out of 10 finalists correct.  The three I didn’t get were in my “Bubbling Under” list so their inclusion is not that shocking.  But are they worthy based on their performance?  For CZECH REPUBLIC (“Friend of a Friend” by Lake Malawi) and BELARUS (“Like It” by ZENA), the answer is an unequivocal yes.  Lake Malawi’s live chops and charisma truly shone–I’m glad frontman Albert Černý combed his hair back and channeled the charisma of Shawn Mendes.  ZENA meanwhile delivers an assured confidence we rarely see on people of her age (she’s only 16), and she’s nailed her vocals.  Bonus points for the backflipping backup dancer.

Now, about the third qualifer I missed, SAN MARINO (“Say Na Na Na” by Serhat)?  There is a lot of goodwill for this entry, but I was shocked how off-key Serhat sounded this night and I had previously mentioned the staging pales in comparison to what he did back in 2016.  Still, kudos for Serhat for bringing SAN MARINO to the finals for the second time in its entire history.

Now, what about the entries I projected would make the final but failed?  For POLAND (“Pali się (Fire of Love)” by Tulia), it always was a divisive entry, with some appreciating their “white voice” sound and others disliking it, so perhaps it could not win enough supporters because of that.  Still, I have to salute their strong, dynamic presentation–wonder how they were able to have a turntable one time and then disappear after a few seconds?  And their outfits are bright and colorful and I love the video backdrop with the four singers sporting modern looks.

There are a lot of fans saddened that HUNGARY (Az én apám [My father]” by Joci Papai) missed the cut and broke his country’s eight-year qualification streak, but for me, I partly expected it as even if the staging is actually very appropriate (meaning, it’s very simple), it doesn’t have much impact and most viewers don’t speak Hungarian so as much as Joci gave his all, it’s not enough to connect the public.

But the shut-out I’m most upset about is PORTUGAL (“Telemoveis” by Conan Osiris).  Sure, we can pinpoint the wardrobe color choice to be a misstep as it didn’t make the dance movements pop, or that dancer João Reis Moreira delivered more fly dance moves during the national final than here, but even this performance is still an indelible and unforgettable that this is more finals-worthy than, say, SAN MARINO.

Now, who is likely to take the rear in this round?  For me, that would be MONTENEGRO (“Heaven” by D Mol) though I have a feeling there would be points from SERBIA and SLOVENIA tossed in its way.  The song is simply that weak and the staging is sloppy.

We need to provide commendation to GEORGIA (“Keep on Going” by Oto Nemsadze) as the fiery staging elevates the song that there are people who believe it could be an upset finalist.  Most especially the backup singer Mikheil Javakhishvili, who previously experienced heartbreak last year as part of Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao that also missed the final cut–the camera panned a closeup of him carrying his country’s flag nervously waiting for the results.  For that alone, I felt very sad for him that they missed the cut.

Mikheil Javakhishvili (R) nervously awaiting it Georgia would be called into the final.

Now, who are the top performers this evening?  Though CYPRUS (“Replay” by Tamta) delivered on its favorite status and did perform strongly, I have to note that her vocal delivery was far from pitch-perfect.  No way will this beat or equal “Fuego”.

As expected, ICELAND (Hatrið mun sigra” by Hatari) delivered on its dystopian BDSM fireworks-laden fantasy.  I’m not as confident that this will sustain the 10-year cycle delivered by Selma and Yohanna, but I’m so pleased they broke out of the five-year doldrums (and deservingly so).

GREECE (“Better Love” by Katerine Duska) delivered on both visual spectacle and vocal fireworks–Katerine’s high notes are a treat to behold and the opulent staging with lotus motif and that Fabergé-egg-shaped backdrop was a visual feast.  Prior to this, many expected this to top this semifinal, but one performance beat her to it…

AUSTRALIA (“Zero Gravity” by Kate Miller-Heidke) was the highlight of this round.  The cosmic backdrop and Kate’s elegant baby-blue ballgown were highlights by themselves, but what makes this presentation very special was the extra degree of difficulty with Kate suspended on a moving pole and singing operatically at the same time.  Moving around those things are already hard enough but to sing and stay on-key the way Kate did?  Stupendous!  For this level of performance, this deserves a Top Five finish in the final at the very least.

Onwards to the second semifinal, where the big heavy-hitters and oddmakers favorites are.  Would they deliver on the hype?



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