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'American Idol': On the scene at the finale performance show

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Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images

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Maybe it was the bright, sunshine-y day that basked the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles with a warm, welcoming glow for yesterday’s American Idol Top 2 performance finale extravaganza. Maybe it was the way Top 36-ers Casey Carlson, Kendall Beard, Kristen McNamara and Hollywood week washout Emily Wynne-Hughes all hugged each other outside the Nokia like they were the best of besties. Maybe it was the way the aforementioned foursome attracted a small mob of onlookers content to grab a photo and autograph from anyone involved with American Idol at all. Maybe it was the gaggle of well-dressed youngsters I saw happily packed like cattle just inside the Nokia’s glass facade as they patiently waited to be transformed into Swaybots and herded to the lip of the Nokia’s stage. Maybe it was the Idol swag being hocked both inside and out of the Nokia, including an Adam Lambert T-shirt with his first name in an ’80s metal rock font and a Kris Allen T-shirt with his first name in a ’70s disco boogie font. Or maybe it was the guy wearing the yellow T-shirt with “WHO’S YOUR MAMBA” in purple lettering, standing on some kind of raised platform smack in the middle of the massive lines of people waiting to get inside the Nokia, proselytizing at the top of his lungs not about the L.A. Lakers’ impending playoff game next door at the Staples Center, but…wait for it…the Ten Commandments.

Whatever the reason, by the time I got to my seat way back in the wayback — literally in the far right, rear corner of the indescribably massive Nokia Theater, so far away that wee Kris Allen was dwarfed by my outstretched pinkie — I was in such a wide open-minded mood that even as I type this, I just can’t get on the last-night’s-performance-finale-was-a-serious-disappointment bandwagon. Yeah, “No Boundaries” was a melody-free, word-clogged blob of a song, but haven’t we all come to expect our Idol finale songs to be uninterestingly bad? Sure, Adam and Kris were apparently forced to sing songs we’d heard from them before, but they still both managed to get me all with the goosebumples, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” than Kris’ last night. And, OK, “A Change is Gonna Come” and “What’s Goin’ On” aren’t the hippest, most current songs in the pop music canon, but both our boys handled them with style to spare, and I daresay Lambert’s achingly felt, blisteringly sung rendition of his Civil Rights Era classic was pretty damn interesting (not to mention quite moving) given all the buzz surrounding Adam’s sexuality and recent advances in gay rights.

If it seems like I’m stalling from delivering unto you all the Idol on-the-scenery, you’re not far wrong: You could’ve halved the distance of my eyeballs from the Nokia stage, and I still would have struggled to scrounge up my usual helping of scrumptious insider scoop. So with 25 minutes before air, I hopped on the nearest camel and trundled my way up to the front of the Nokia so I could at least scope out the scene among the lucky 56,000 or so stationed within the first mile of the stage. I may be exaggerating, but just a bit.

My first order of business, of course, was to walk to the edge of the stage to greet one Debbie the Stage Manager, back from her miraculously brief convalescence after falling from the top of the Idol Thunderdome at the CBS Television City two weeks before. Ever the trooper, Debbie proudly showed me the righteous scar on her leg, reported that she is indeed fine, with no permanent injury, and thanked me — and, in turn, all of you — for the kind words of support. Here’s five more: She is one tough cookie.

On my way up to see her, the Season 8 Idols all walked in to much applause and cheer; on my way back, the only non-Idol celeb I saw in the audience who wasn’t in the cast of Glee was Willie Garson, a.k.a. Sex and the City‘s Stanford Blatch — and sitting in the front row, no less. Hiking up the aisle to my seat back in Phoenix, Arizona, I passed dazed looking Top 36-er Alex Wagner-Trugman (though, really, when has that loveable doof not looked dazed?), and then caught sight of my favorite sign of the night: “My Doctor Says I have a Case of Lambertitis.” By the by, you may have noticed a scattering of tiny yellow signs emblazoned with a boldfaced “KRIS” and what looked like two random black splotches above and below the name. That’s actually supposed to be an outline of Kris’ hometown state of Arkansas with his name superimposed on top of it; some guy was handing reams of them out to passersby outside the Nokia before the show, a savvy notion undone by the sad fact that many Americans couldn’t pick out the shape of Arkansas even if the sign was ten times bigger. Yay geography!

With 12 minutes to go, Cory launched into his standard warm-up routine and somehow managed not only to get through the entire thing in just under five minutes, but to get a good half of the 9,402,568* souls populating the Nokia (*estimate) to participate in his standard swing-side-to-side-with-your-neck dance. Cory then asked where the Adam and Kris fans were in the house, and the screams from the Kris contingent were appreciably more eardrum blistering. Kara, Randy, Paula and Simon emerged and took their seats — my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin kept chanting for Paula to trip on the long train of her HEY-LOOK-I’M-GREEN! dress, but that’s before he realized that in the last week Paula evidently had her skin completely reinforced with buffed, rigid strips of leather to help offset her occasional bouts of the wobblies. Cory admonished the audience to get quiet for Ryan’s cold open, the lights went down, and as Ryan took to his opening mark, Debbie began her countdown to the start of the show and quelled all lingering murmurs with the simple statement, “This is your only quiet time.” And THIS…was my last American Idol audience experience of the calendar year.

After Ryan’s introduction, we entered the first ad break, the judges all swung around in their chairs together as if on cue, and the first 80 dozen or so rows began wildly waving back at them. The crew hauled in two giant silver tubes cloaked in black fabric from either end of the stage, which I surmised were designed to channel fog for Adam’s first number, although at the moment they weren’t channeling much more than the audience’s idle curiosity. Simon stood conferring with Randy, Paula sat conferring with Kara, and with about 90 seconds to go before we were back on the air, what sounded vaguely like the booming steps of a lumbering Tyrannosaurus Rex stepping ever closer and faster to the Nokia began emanating from somewhere inside the theater. I never could figure out what the sound actually was, but I get an oddly perverse enjoyment out of the image of a massive, marauding Dunkleman ripping the roof off of the Nokia and burning the judges to a cinder with his righteously fiery breath.

We were back, and as Adam rose onto the Nokia Thunderstairs, massive ropes of fog began pouring from those strategically placed tubes. I thought to myself that I hadn’t seen fog that thick on a stage floor since I took in a performance of Phantom of the Opera over a decade ago, and lo, Simon steals the thought right out of my brain. I’d suspect my snark demon of selling me out, but the poor fella was knocked out cold by the earlier shot of Anthony Hopkins in the audience that splashed up on the Nokia Thunderscreens. You see, pretty much the entire audience audibly gasped upon seeing the face of Hannibal Lecter staring back down at them, so much so I’m fairly certain we all created a momentary partial vacuum within the Nokia, and Smikel suffers from acutely sensitive inner-ears. It didn’t help that the audience gasped with laughter just a scant minute later when Paula’s comment about being proud to see Adam up on the Nokia stage prompted the saucy Idol director to cut to Danny Gokey very much not up on the Nokia stage.

Next up on the Nokia stage: Kris. The crew wheeled in and polished Kris’ piano while his video package noted the guy once gave his mom coupons good for a song from him, causing mothers everywhere to swoon and begin cracking their texting knuckles. After Kris finished burning up “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the tiny little girl four rows ahead of me was so overcome with emotion within her wee frame that she began to fricking lose her mind and had to be tended to by her overwhelmed parents.

At the ad break, the judges somehow managed to trek outside the theater despite having to cross two time zones to do it. Allison — whose hair color I can only surmise must be visible from space — fielded hugs from fans while the crew set up for Adam’s next number. With a minute left, the judges were back in their seats; 20 seconds to go, Adam was in his place; and when we hit the airwaves, the glam rocker delivered probably the most searing and soaring Idol performance I’ve had the privilege of witnessing in person. Indeed, the Idols were all on their feet well before Adam had rounded for home, and as Ryan read out Adam’s numbers, Jorge, Anoop and Allison all began pumping their fists like Adam had just scored a 99-yard touchdown, grand-slam home run, and game-winning half-court basket all at the same time.

At the break, Debbie walked Adam off stage while rubbing his back, the crew set up for Kris’ second song, and Mr. Allen was seated at his mark for more than half the ad break. Which would have had the audience overcome with screams of joy if they weren’t already rendered apoplectic by Cory roaming the Nokia and tossing out free Idol swag willy-nilly. Well, most of the audience. Three rows in front of me, yet another tiny little girl worked diligently on her vocabulary homework while her mother worked diligently on a newspaper crossword puzzle.

Ryan brought us back into the show, and before Kris tackled “What’s Goin’ On,” the gentleman two chairs to my left barked “GO KRIS!” with enough sudden force to startle me back to those moments during middle school track meets when an especially rowdy father would bark encouragement at his son before his heat in the 100m dash after the kid from a rival school just obliterated the district record in the first heat of the race. Or something. It’s late, and I’m on what seems like my third sports metaphor of the night, which most likely means I’m gonna be suuuuuper sore in the morning. Meanwhile, in what would become a pattern for the rest of the night, Allison, Scott and Jorge remained standing for the entirety of Kris’ performance.

If anything of import went down during the following ad break, the light from that event took too long to reach my eyes — save at the very end, when Debbie shepherded the Idols from their seats with just 15 seconds or so to go in what appeared to be a spontaneous decision to crowd them around Ryan. Adam weathered the hurricane to get that one thing — and haven’t we all, really? — and again, Allison, Scott and Jorge remained standing through the entire song, causing Smirkel to remark that they were essentially the real life version of the cast of Glee.

At the ad break, Randy and Simon left — no doubt racing to get out of earshot of Kara so they could collapse into a pile of giggles — and then we went through the entire painful ritual once again: Kris climbing a mountain with every step, finding it harder to believe with every breath; Allison, Scott and Jorge earnestly cheering Kris to don’t stop believin’; Simon and Randy biting down on their cheeks so hard they almost draw blood.

During the video recap package, the crew set up for Carrie Underwood, who at this point I think may have made more post-win Idol appearances than every other Idol winner combined. After Carrie was through, the audience immediately began streaming out of the theater, no matter how many times Cory and Debbie pleaded with them to stick around for what they promised was a quick shot of Adam and Kris they needed for tonight’s two-hour results finale extravaganza. And by “quick” they meant waiting for five minutes before Adam and Kris came back to stand stage center, another two minutes for the crew to get set up, another four minutes for two takes of Adam and Kris standing using a crane-mounted camera, and another four minutes for two takes of Adam and Kris standing using a steadicam. Showbiz!

After Debbie finally released what was left of the audience, I trundled downstairs to the Nokia Lounge for the promised Adam and Kris quickie press conference. As an appetizer, we were treated to a cameo appearance by Paula, who appeared to hint she thought Kris could win when she noted “when the third [contestant] leaves, you always wonder where the votes’ll go.” As she left the stage, someone yelled out, “Are all the judges coming back next year?” Paula’s reply: “Tune in!”

Finally, in came a surprisingly spry Kris and Adam, who kidded around about adjusting the height of the mic before fielding the first question about the lovely Idol Finale song “No Boundaries.” Adam’s response, after the obligatory “it was a great song,” was kinda brilliant: “There was a lot of lyric.” Then a dude pointedly asked Adam if there was any symbolism to his songs, ending the question by stating, “Our people love you.” As Kris nodded in agreement, Adam noted that, “‘Mad World’…talks about people who don’t fit in,” and that “A Change is Gonna Come” was born from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, “and there are all sorts of new civil rights issues that are coming up right now.” After the boys fielded a question about being roommates, some incredibly wise person blurted out, “Who’s seen who naked?” While Kris shook his head in embarrassment, Adam smiled and said, “We don’t get naked together, sorry.” After Kris lamented that he didn’t feel the minor earthquake that shook L.A. on Sunday night, he said that, like Simon, he felt “Ain’t No Sunshine” was his strongest song of the night for the simple reason that “I’d done that song, so I’d already kind of rehearsed it — it was ready.” And while Adam was happy to get a chance to re-stage “Mad World,” he singled out “A Change is Gonna Come” as a standout for him: “It came as a surprise. I wouldn’t have picked that for myself, but…I looked at the words and they really moved me. I felt like I connected to it.” And with that, they were whisked away to rehearse for tonight’s finale.

So, PopWatchers, I conclude my final On the Scene Idol recap of the season feeling surprisingly, happily sated. In spite of itself, I feel like the show managed to successfully deliver two completely worthy budding pop stars to its finale. But do you agree? Where would you rank “No Boundaries” in the pantheon of Idol finale songs? Do you think Kris can pull off the upset, or is Adam fated for the annual shower of confetti? And, seriously, what do you think the over-under is on the Idol producers unleashing a Norman Gentle/Tatiana Del Toro duet upon us all?

More on ‘American Idol’:

EW.com’s American Idol HQ

‘American Idol’: Who won the final showdown? Kris or Adam? (Or was it a draw?)

Gallery: Adam Lambert’s American Idol journey

Gallery: Kris Allen’s American Idol journey

‘Idol’: Gay-baiting banter? Again?!

‘Idol’ Cheat Sheet: The season so far…

‘Idol’: Season 8’s best and worst fashion

‘American Idol’: Season 8’s Greatest Hits!

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