Central Illinois native Leah Marlene did it again Sunday night, advancing to the "American Idol" top seven.
The 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Normal performed "When She Loved Me" from the movie "Toy Story 2" as part of the episode's Disney theme. Judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan offered glowing remarks, and Marlene was the first of the advancing contestants to be revealed. She and the other performers were chosen by votes taken through the show's app, website and text messages.
"You've yet to hit a bad note in this competition," Bryan told her. "You always tell the story perfectly, and you just did it with that song. It was incredible."
A video clip before her performance showed Marlene visiting attractions at Disneyland with her dad, Derry Grehan, and hearing from the episode's celebrity coach, Derek Hough, formerly of "Dancing with the Stars."
"What dad wouldn't want to be me right now?" said Grehan, who is lead guitarist of Canadian rock band Honeymoon Suite. "This whole ride for her has been amazing. Just to watch her grow so much in the last few weeks, even. Her mom and I, we couldn't be more proud."
Hough remarked on a stark difference between Marlene's natural, lively charisma and the solemn energy of her performance.
"What's amazing about Leah is she comes in, she's like this real-life cartoon character and then she switches into this beautiful, heart-wrenching song," he said.
Richie told Marlene she "knocked it out of the park," and Perry praised her growth and storytelling ability. "I'm just so proud of you," she said.
Leah Marlene grew up in Normal with a childhood heavily influenced by music and got her start performing in uptown Normal by the age of 9. Events like the Sugar Creek Arts Festival and the Sweet Corn Circus offered her an early spotlight.
The 2019 Normal West High graduate also was among the performers at last summer's Saturdays on the Square concert series.
The next episode of "American Idol" airs at 7 p.m. Monday.