By Shirley Halperin
March 21, 2007 at 05:43 PM EDT

We’re a week away from the Top 10, PopWatchers, and sitting in the studio audience on this particular Tuesday, you could definitely feel that the competition and the energy level is heating up.

But first! A little pre-pre-show scoop — about the Mystery Crying Girl (pictured), who got about as much camera time as any of the Idols did last night. A friend of my colleague Adam B. Vary reports that she was actually at the dress rehearsal, met Sanjaya then, and was so beside herself about not being able to see the live show that producers gave her tickets. She’s sooo gonna be on the finale.

Anyway, back to it: Things started off a little late last night, causing a frenzied hum to completely envelop the studio as the audience waited for something, anything, to clue them in to what was about to happen. This is usually the time when I scan the crowd for celebrities. And I use that word loosely. But sure enough, in walked singer Ryan Cabrera with his girlfriend Riley Keough, holding hands, wearing all black and looking very rock & roll. Keough is, of course, the 17-year-old daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, and a budding model. She and 24-year-old Ryan have been dating for about six months, and the last time I saw them, they were snuggled in a booth watching Constantine Maroulis when he played the Viper Room. These guys are multi-season Idol loyalists, my friends!

Naturally, I had to say hi, because that’s just what I do. So I headed down to the fourth row and while Riley fixed her hair with the help of a pocket mirror, I chatted with Mr. Cabrera, who told me some interesting things.

1. He had wanted to be there to cheer on his friend, Brandon Rogers (is there anybody in LA this guy doesn’t know?).

2. When he got the tickets, he didn’t think Brandon would be gone by the next show! In fact, Brandon had been to his house just this past week to give him a little jab, as in, “Thanks a lot, dude.”

3. Brandon isn’t bummed at all. “He’s more like, ‘What the hell just happened to me?'” reported Ryan.

4. Ryan is in the thick of recording a new album and heads to Miami next week to work on it.

Glad to hear all is well in his world. Walking back to my seat, I spotted a couple more recognizable faces: Peter Noone, natch; Missi Pyle and Sarah Jones from The Wedding Bells; and, I’m 99 percent sure, recently eliminated contestant Alaina Alexander signing autographs while wearing a very revealing outfit, much like the one Haley wore for her opening number.

But let’s not jump ahead just yet. Less than 10 minutes to airtime and Ryan Seacrest made his entrance. He headed straight to the judges’ table to check out their psychedelic new cups. As we all know, Ryan fancies himself a connoisseur of interior style (trust me, I’ve seen his dressing room). Many more minutes went by and still no judges. Turned out there was an issue with an exit sign that was hovering above the side entrance. LA fire marshals were all over this soundstage like white on rice, and you don’t wanna mess with those guys.

One minute and 36 seconds to air and only Randy had taken his seat. Forty-five seconds, 30 seconds… finally, Simon and Paula dashed to their thrones.

Someone asked this on the comments for last week’s blog item: which of the contestants got the biggest cheer? Well, on this night, it was unequivocally two girls: Jordin Sparks and Melinda Doolittle. LaKisha, as painful as it is to admit, may have lost some of her fan luster. I saw less than a handful of signs with her name of them and that’s never, excuse the pun, a good sign.

And speaking of signs, here are my favorite DIY banners from tonight:

“I Wanna Be Christified” – yikes!

“Jordin Sparks Sparkles” – oy

“Sanjaya, You Light My Fi-yah” – a little cheesy, but cute

“Bringing Chubby Back” – rock!

“Sanjaya: Go, Go, Young Pro” – I think I just threw up in my mouth a little

On to the performances: Haley kicked things off with “Tell Him” and encountered a common problem in this kind of venue, when the music drowns out the vocals. Aside from emoting, making the song your own, and possessing the ”yo factor,” one more responsibility the contestants have to carry is the ability to sing above a full orchestra. And when they don’t, you’ll notice the studio audience’s response to be a tad more tepid, which is exactly what happened to Haley. The mix at home on your TV, however, could sound dramatically different, as my astute colleague Adam pointed out last week.

The judges on this first round were in deep conversation. Simon shrugged at one point, as if to say “Whatever,” but he obviously took notice of one thing: Haley’s outfit. During the commercial, Simon bolted for the first of four or five cigarette breaks that he took (his brand of choice? Kool), but inside, we were all talking about him. That’s because Haley’s dad was sitting in the audience, and told the warm-up guy, “I liked her outfit…and Simon needs to realize that I’m, like, 20 feet away.”

Them’s fighting words! And they totally set the pace for the rest of the night. When Chris Richardson came on, the place literally exploded with female screams. Watching Paula, you could sense she was also smitten. And not just with the Justin Timberlake look-alike Chris R., but also by Simon. In all my years of covering Idol, I’ve never seen Paula and Simon be so affectionate. Playfully stroking and whispering… at one point I even saw Simon give her a back rub! Maybe it was something in those trippy cups.

Another commercial break, which Idol exec Nigel Lythgoe thought was the perfect time to announce auditions for the next season of So You Think You Can Dance this weekend in L.A. (click here for more dates). It was also a good opportunity for a young audience member to ask Simon if he’s paid to be a jerk. “No,” he answered. “I’m paid to be honest.”

Song choice was a big factor on this British Invasion-themed show, as it is every week, but dramatic mid-tempo numbers like the ones chosen by Stephanie and LaKisha didn’t fare as well with the judges. The audience, on the other hand, seemed much more respectful, giving standing ovations to both.

It’s no secret that I’m rooting for Blake. He got my vote when he chose a Keane song on week 1. And from what I can tell, there are many more just like me, who watched him with great interest as he practiced his moves sidestage. And while his intro segment played, he even did a little tap dance to ease the tension. I love this guy, even more because he went with the Zombies. I mean, you really can’t go wrong with “Time of the Season,” and he executed it perfectly and with his own, unique twist. That being said, I’ll give Chris Sligh props, too, for choosing “She’s Not There” and for nearly punching Simon with the bottom of his microphone stand.

Moving on to Olulu Newton-John (doesn’t she look just like her?) and her coaching tips. They clearly were effective when it came to Jordin Sparks, who, a fellow journalist nearby commented, is shaping up to be this season’s Kelly Clarkson. Jordin has a lot of love from this audience, who literally jumped out of their seats as soon as she hit the stage, and it’s making her stronger with each passing week. The same can be said of her competition, Mindy Doo, who made her entrance to deafening cheers.

The disappointments of the night? Phil’s and Gina’s performances, during which Simon’s expressions spoke volumes. While Phil was belting “Tobacco Road,” Simon looked bored and was fussing with his nails. For Gina’s “Paint It Black,” he looked absolutely horrified. As for Sanjaya, I think speechless is the only way to describe any of the judges’ reactions.

All in all, I think Randy had it right tonight: It was a great show and people really brought their all. And I have to give big props to Paula for rocking that fantastic outfit and a sideways ponytail, she really did look great. Of course, you never know what next week, or for that matter, tomorrow, will bring.