By Shirley Halperin
Updated April 25, 2007 at 08:02 PM EDT

This week’s performance show was primed to be different. For one thing, it was taped (a first, I think) to make room for all the rehearsal time needed for Idol Gives Back, which, as I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred times, is on tonight and features big donation promises from Fox, Ford, Coca Cola, blah, blah, blah… The show was also the first since Sanjaya’s departure and, perhaps somewhat expectedly, his absence was felt — the audience took longer to warm up, the signs were sparse (though there were still plenty in his honor, like this moment of brilliance, “Don’t Cry-a for Sanjaya”), and, after the show, the line to greet the exiting contestants was less than half that of last week’s (and it was much colder then). Not scientific proof that Sanjaya’s responsible… but I believe it to be true. The other drastic change was, of course, Simon ditching his trademark black and grey Ts for an ultra-white button-down shirt, which, on air and off, became the brunt of many a Seacrest joke.

But that was about it as far as the novelty factor goes. Actually, this was one of those times when wild cheers and Sanjaya jokes were not entirely appropriate. The vibe was somber from the start, as footage of impoverished children in Africa and the U.S. undoubedtly drove the point home (Paula was wiping back tears with almost every montage). The performances were also a bit more pensive, as contestants sang inspirational ballads with a serious tone.

Of course, what you see on TV is all kudos all the time, but in between commercials, the Idol soundstage can be kooky or it can be quiet. Last night’s started a little wacky, with the requisite white grandma spitting out a near-perfect “Rapper’s Delight” (how is it that so many 50-plus-year-old women know all the words? I know it was in The Wedding Singer, but was that what started it all? Anyone have any theories?), ousted Top 12-er Brandon Rogers robot-dancing along, and, once again, Simon’s shirt, which, after some egging from Billy the warm-up guy, got its own applause.

Chris was the first to take the stage and, just before camerasstarted rolling, he had to make an adjustment in the crotch area,prompting Debbie the stage manager to gasp audibly. (There wereplenty more ladies who caught it too, albeit delightedly.) I spottedIvanka Trump in the audience almost instantly; she is surprisinglytall. And another six-footer was also seated in the bleacher seats, the”world’s first supermodel,” Janice Dickinson. But it was Brandon in thefront row who wins the Most Enthusiastic Audience Member award. Theguy was literally jumping out of his seat with every opportunity.

RyanSeacrest then announced that Bono would be a mentor for the Idol Gives Backspecial. Not exactly sure what that means, as most celebrity guestswould have been working with the contestants already for packages toair on this show. The 12-year-old girl sitting next to me also lookedlost, asking her mother, “Mommy, who’s Bono?” But this kid definitelyknew her Melinda Doolittle, and single-handedly raised the room’s shrieklevel when she saw her favorite Idol on the sidelines hugging Chris.There were other entertaining youngsters in the crowd, like one10-year-old who was given the microphone so she could tell the judgesall about her vocal coach, and another who turned out to be Laura from Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? She, we learned, just shot a pilotfor Fox.

But back to Melinda, who, sporting some serious bling and avery flattering dress, was the star of the night. It was the onlytime the audience got up to applaud with the first swell and didn’tsit down again until Mindy Doo was done. Meanwhile, Blake was busystretching his jaw out and making devil hand signs at his friendsseated below. Perhaps if he had focused more on the impendingperformance than his pals in the crowd, his “Imagine” would haveimpressed, but alas, it didn’t. Something else I noticed as Blake wasattempting to emote: It seems when the contestants stare off intospace, they are focusing on the huge blank Teleprompter way in the back(no lyrics for the Idols, but it’s Ryan Seacrest’s lifesaver). Alonger-than-usual commercial break (it was taped, after all) found Simonhaving a moment with his girl, Teri Seymour, interrupted by a man whoyelled, “I love you, Simon!” With a smirk, Simon looked around to findhim, only to fall prey to another shirt reference: “It’s because of thechest hair, isn’t it?” Ryan cracked.

LaKisha came next and,surprisingly, there were only two visible signs in her support. But shehad one hardcore fan sitting front and center: Simon’s bodyguard. Ifyou ask me, the judges’ comments that LaKisha was again borderlinescreaming to get on top of the band were absolutely on point (even agirl in the audience yelled, “Simon, you’re right!”). In the studio,the band was loud, but LaKisha was louder — and not in a good way. Asthe judges ran it down for Lakisha, Phil took a seat on one of thoseridiculously uncomfortable silver stools, for a quickinterview with Ryan. But unlike when Sanjaya would take that spot,waiting for his cue, poor Phil was all but ignored. Still, he wasprobably having the last laugh after pulling off the strongest maleperformance of the night.

But then Jordin Sparks came along, and allbets were off. As usual, she wowed the judges and the audience. EvenIvanka Trump stood up for the 17-year-old front-runner. And Simon, whousually looks uninterested no matter who’s singing or how well, wasactually paying attention for a change. Jordin also got my vote forinspiring the best sign of the night: “Spark it up for Jordin!” Have her friendsbeen hanging with Blake’s buds?