By Shirley Halperin
April 18, 2007 at 07:13 PM EDT

I have to say, Idol‘s dreaded country show wasn’t nearly as torturous as I expected it to be. Maybe that’s because I had a great seat. Tucked away in a dark corner with a soft makeshift barricade at my side. I had the perfect view and plenty of elbow room. All the better for me to take notes for you!

So let’s get started. Constantine Maroulis was a surprise audience member last night. He and actress Mackenzie Mauzy, with whom he shares a storyline on The Bold and the Beautiful, told me they just walked into the Idol studio following their own taping on the other side of the CBS Television City lot. Constantine has completed four episodes of the daytime soap, he said proudly, and is planning on sticking around L.A. for a while. I read up on the role a bit. Apparently, Constantine plays a music producer guy who becomes obsessed with Mauzy’s character, Phoebe, presumably a singer. I’m not sure how the soap schedule works, but I imagine they’ll air sometime soon. Constantine also sang the praises of his Idol cohort, season 4 runner-up Bo Bice, saying how much he loves Bo’s theme for Blades of Glory.

Of course, you saw that Idol started on a somber note. The audience was prepped for this. About 12 minutes before airtime, Idol stage manager Debbie announced to the room that the show’s opening would be different tonight, per Ryan’s request, to acknowledge the fatal shootings at Virginia Tech. “So many people watch us that he felt it was necessary to say something,” she explained.

Perhaps that eerie silence during the countdown and opening theme was what set the weird tension tonight. Or maybe it’s because the competition is finally heating up. Then again, once Sanjaya enters the picture, any shred of credibility is completely lost again. But by far, the crankiest guy in the room was Simon. As Phil kicked off his tribute to Keith Urban, Simon didn’t even glance at the performance happening directly behind him. I would even say he looked annoyed, but gave Phil a glowing review nevertheless.

addCredit(“American Idol: Frank Micelotta”)

Next up: Jordin, wearing a $600 dress, I later learned. And she didlook smashing in it. Something I noticed: there were way more signs forJordin than any other contestant (see the stand-out signs listedbelow). She really does seem to have the strongest fan base out of thegirls. If Melinda and LaKisha cancel each other out, this girl’sdestined for the crown, as Simon noted.

While Ryan read Jordin’s digits, Sanjaya made his entrance stageright. It’s amazing how, whenever he emerges for the first time, youcan hear an audible chuckle throughout the room. Sort of like whatyou’re probably doing at home but louder. Yet the people love him, andSanjaya looked decidedly comfortable before launching into his attemptto “make Bonnie Raitt proud.” It was something to talk about, allright. And by all means, do it here. I should point out that LaKishaand Chris, who were standing offstage waiting for their cue, were alsovisibly amused by Sanjaya’s performance.

Simon’s critique was, of course, the biggest dis of the night. Andthe longest of the judges’ comments, so much so that Simon needed arefill of Pellegrino in his judging table cup once he was throughranting. But apparently, he wasn’t quite finished, as LaKisha also gota verbal lashing from the judges’ table. Is it just me who hears thatclock ticking?

Speaking of, it seems this season’s Idol heartthrob may beslipping. Chris had a rough ride tonight, and Simon certainly let himhave it. Though I barely heard the exchange, thanks to the crowd’scacophonous booing and hissing, you could tell it hit hard. EvenMelinda, off to the side, was clutching her hands in trepidation andlistening closely. It seemed to rattle her nerves a touch, too. Beforekicking off her performance, the band fiddler instructed Melinda totake a deep breath, which she did dutifully. But the crowd was stillshowing Mindy Doo the love, getting up on their feet in solidarity.Still, it was nothing compared to the shrieks that Blake (pictured) got hit withonce he hit the stage. This mostly-female audience may not have knownthe song “When The Stars Go Blue,” which was actually originallywritten and recorded by alt-country star Ryan Adams (Tim McGrawincluded his version on last year’s Tim McGraw Reflected: Greatest Hits Vol. 2), but they sure were digging it.

I had to head out before the final bow to catch Dancing With the Starsnext door, but running between stages, I got some nifty shots of thecontestants greeting their public, as they do every week (FYI —autograph and picture seekers wait an hour and a half for this brieffan moment). Check them out here.

I leave you with… the signs of the times (God, help us all.)

“Phillin’ Blessed”
“I Ache For Blake”
“Dallas Loves Divas”
“Sanjaya, your [sic] my cowboy. Giddy Up!”
“I Have an Achy Blake-y Heart”
“Don’t Know Why-a, We Love Sanjaya”

And my favorite, which was a T-shirt: “I’m With Pitchy”