Before I say anything else about what it was like in the audience of last night’s American Idol Top 12 show, I feel I must say this: Blame Nigel Lythgoe for the swaying hands. Well before the show launched into full swing, the exec. producer took to the sparkly new stage (plenty more on that in a second) and demanded that either every single one of us keep our arms in the air at all times during the performances, or he was going to unleash Paula Abdul’s head-popping arms on little David Archuleta. Well, okay, he actually said, “We would love you all to be a part of tonight’s show,” but we could all read between the lines — especially when he asked us to clap only with our hands above our heads “because it gives a much better image.” By the time he commanded asked us all to practice the hand swaying for him — “Wonderful! That looks like a sea of people!” — I could just picture poor D’Archie cowering as Ryan and Randy held back a salivating Paula, waiting for the go signal from Nigel.

Anyhoo, hello again! It’s been so long since I last huffed up to the Idol stage at CBS Television City, and yet the moment I stepped inside and heard the Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman” mashed up with Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around… Comes Around” — i.e., the telltale tunes that could only mean Corey the Warm-Up Comic was in da houze! — it all felt so blissfully familiar. That is, until I got a look at that new stage. Can we say sensory overload? My friends have told me they barely noticed the new surroundings on the telly, but hours after returning home, I was still twittering from all the flat-screen monitors, rotating Idol logos, standing spectators, elevated musicians, brushed steel, blue neon, semi-circle video screens, lighting packages, lighting packages on the semi-circle video screens, and polished Ryan Seacrestry.

After the jump, I’ll give you all the highlights as I saw them from Sec. D, Row 6, Seat 6, including which of the Idols wins the Softie of the Week award, the identity of the person running off stage just as the show came back from the ad break before David Hernandez sang, and why Randy literally turned his back on Syesha Mercado.

addCredit(“Carly Smithson with Ryan Seacrest: R. Mickshaw/Getty Images”)

First of all, I’ve gotta say, seizure-coaxing stimuli aside, at the very least the new stage is impressive. When I first saw the season 6 Idolset up close and personal, I was struck by how small it seemed. Not somuch with this new season 7 get up; if anything, it looks even biggerin person than it did when I watched it back on TV later last night. Ieven liked the double-layered, double-axis American Idol globes slowly spinning on either side of the stage like competing Daily Planet logos welded onto the gyro-scope I rode in Space Camp.And, for the record, the Stage Left globe won, but by default; only theouter sphere on the Stage Right globe was rotating, while the innersphere with the Idol logo remained inert. Which may be a hint, Nigel, that sometimes, even on American Idol, less is more. Like, say, those steep circular staircases beneath the Idolmega-orbs. Their steps have been set so far apart that, when I saw bothRamiele and D’Archie were starting their songs by standing on them, Igot a quick flash of the tiny crooners falling flat on their faces onnational TV. And, in a way, they kinda did, huh? (Trend to watch forthis season: The Jinx of the Idol Staircases.)

What also didn’t impress was the scandalously — scandalously,I say! — low celeb quotient. I’m as big a fan of Taye Diggs and CamrynManheim as the next self-respecting EW staffer, but the Kardashians?(Sorry, Whitney!) I also saw Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rimes, and, um, that was it. I mean, last year,the Top 12 show was one of the hottest tickets in town, and that wasthe music of Diana Ross, for Jude’s sake!

More unnerving (at least at the outset) was the new Idol“Mosh Pit.” Those aren’t air quotes, either; that’s actually what Nigelcalled the now seat-free front section of the audience, a name that,before the show sounded a little ominous, and afterwards struck me aspretty hilarious. Moshing? On Idol? If anything, the “moshers”were too well behaved, their necks dutifully craned towards the judgeswhenever they spoke, often nodding in agreement, occasionally startledwhenever Paula and Simon started sniping. And they always, always, swayed their hands on cue (if not in time, or particularly in unison). I’m guessing they were also orderedinstructed never to interact with the judges, because they never did,even though the ones closest to Simon and Randy could’ve literally reachedout and touched them. If they were so inclined.

Last year, I was shocked to discover that all three judges regularlytalk with each other during the performances, and sometimesthrough the entire show, but the chatter last night was kept to arelative minimum. The only egregious moment came early on, when not 15seconds into Syesha’s “Got to Get You Into My Life,” a sour-faced Randyturned completely around and leaned down into the speakers behind him,remaining there for a good 10 seconds before swinging back to the desk.At that point, I think Simon asked him, “You can’t hear?”

And, indeed, the thumping, bleating, growling volume of the band wasoverpowering Syesha’s voice as she began, a problem that also affected JasonCastro. Both singers sounded far better on TV than they did overthe live sound system, which either blasted out or muffled all theIdols’ quieter, subtler vocal moments. Of course, the fact that bothSyesha and Jason also looked slightly lost up on that massive stagecould’ve been a factor, too. Like Simon said during Hollywood week, themain stage makes you or breaks you; Kristy Lee Cook and David Hernandezboth looked totally befuddled by what to do with themselves up there,and sweet, adorable D’Archie looked more like a lost 12-year-old thanever. (I know, I know, I’m gonna get flamed in the comments for daringto speak ill of the Archuleta, and I heart the kid too, but I’ve gottacall it like I see it.)

I was miffed, meanwhile, to discover that the Idol camerascut off Carly Smithson’s sexy and smooth footwork during herrip-snorting “Come Together.” It wasn’t until last night that I finally”got” Carly; not only can the Irish lass tear up a song, she’s got thatineffable, magnetic stage presence that is really only possible to feelin a live performance. (I felt the same way about Melinda Doolittlelast year.) Chikezie showed glimmers of that too, butthe one contestant who commanded my attention better than Carly wasDavid Cook. The former barkeep took that stage with unwaveringconfidence, and instantly made me feel like I was watching him in a soloconcert rather than in a televised singing competition. And this isjust week one of the finals.

Ah, David Cook. The male rocker was the only Idolcontestant I saw give the singer before him (Carly) a big ol’congratulatory hug, and he was the only one to leave the stage to meetup with a member of his entourage (i.e. the guy in the green shirt anddark-rimmed glasses, who I reckon is his brother) and get a big ol’congratulatory hug. That family reunion was presaged by a quick,but telling, moment: Just after Ryan delivered David Cook’s 866 numberand took us to the break, Cook looked out over the audience, claspedhis hand to his mouth, and his eyes briefly welled up with tears. You expect that sort of sentiment from asweetheart like Brooke White, but out of Cook, well, let’s say the guysurprised me last night in more ways than one.

I’m pushing well past my word count, but before I wrap things up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay respect to the most consistent Idolperformer of them all: Yes, that would be Ryan Seacrest. All lastseason, I found that in spite of myself I was marveling from afar athow smoothly he navigated his job. It really is impressive to watchsomeone go from joking around with the judges to, in the blink of aneye, effortlessly introducing the number one show on TV. Last night, Ifinally got to see him work his hosting mojo up close. After AmandaOvermyer sang and we entered into ad break #8, Ryan and Debbie (the Idolstage manager) walked their way up the aisle in my section as one of themassive tech cranes lowered its camera five feet from my head. Someonehad removed four people across the aisle from me so they wouldn’t getbonked by the crane, but Debbie was having none of it: She needed thosepeople to complete the shot. So while Debbie was barking into herheadset, Ryan peeked over her shoulder and quickly spoke aloud the texton the prompter that he was due to deliver live in 60 seconds,evidently unperturbed by the stern look Debbie was throwing his way.(That could also be leftover animus from two ad breaks previous, whenRyan held onto Debbie’s arm and kept her there until just after theshow came back.)

Ryan then joshed with some of the other reporters sitting with me –“Well, so far, I’ve been really impressed with me tonight” — flirtedwith a mom-type sitting on the aisle, and, boom, suddenly we’re liveand Ryan’s talking to the camera with the same breath he used to giveDebbie a hard time for demanding he stay on his mark: “I’ve been doingthis for a while Debbie… [half-second pause] and we’re back!” After he teed up Michael Johns singing “Across theUniverse,” Ryan turned back to us and gave a little wave, as if to say,”Nice to see you all, but I’ve got to go talk to 25 million peopleover here now. Toodles!” You can call that what you will, but to me,it’s gotta be some kind of genius.

I’ll be back tomorrow with your on-the-scene report from the resultsshow. Until then, what else would you like to know about what happensoff camera on American Idol?