Ah, Stage 36. It’s been so long and my, how I’ve missed you. Well, not really. Though eight months of Simon withdrawal does tend to make me a little testy. As you may have noticed, we’ve staggered our On the Scene reports to avoid, what we here at the E-Dubs call “Idol fatigue.” And while I wasn’t recovering from a South By Southwest music hangover like our little trouper Whitney Pastorek, I’ll admit, sitting in an uncomfortable chair and a tight space for over 45 minutes waiting for the show to start was making me kind of sleepy. But it was my favorite seat – last row in the bleachers on the aisle, with zero chance of getting my mug on air (whew!). No thanks to the press posse party of last week, it appears all the journos have now been separated to avoid any further rowdiness (thanks a lot, guys), so I’m stuck next to a bunch of first-timers, one of whom asks the usher if it’s possible to head down to the front as the show gets closer to air, to which the page, standing tall and proud in a CBS-issued red blazer, shakes his head. “No, not yet or no, not at all?” asks the Idol virgin. “Not at all,” replies the usher, as if to say, “You’ll sit back here and you’ll like it, jackass.”

Meanwhile, down below, Carly Smithson’s husband has taken his seat where he is, quite honestly, being gawked at from every direction. Previously ousted pretty boy Danny Noriega is also in the house, and there’s talk of ‘Til Death star Brad Garrett being spotted milling about backstage. I also hone in on someone who looks an awful lot like Cheryl Hines, and start thinking about Curb Your Enthusiasm. God, that ending was so genius last season, when is it coming back?

My daze is disrupted by Corey the warm-up guy. We must’ve hit the 15-minute mark, I surmise (I don’t know because my Blackberry got confiscated on the way in), and he is all fired up. This is the one part of the Idol audience experience that irks me. I mean, Corey’s a good guy and all, he often pulls double duty warming up the crowd next door at Dancing With the Stars, which I respect. But his shtick feels like a bar mitzvah MC on meth, and I just can’t take it. Fortunately, his hand-clap experiment was short-lived and in no time, the judges were coming out to be greeted by hundreds of screaming fans. Paula’s looking fab and fit in skin-tight leather, Simon’s sporting a pair of 7’s and one massive s–t-eating grin. Ryan, on the other hand, had an air of Brian Williams about him. And why is he heading towards my secret spot in the back??

Wouldn’t you know it, the opening shot is set to go down literally three feet from my seat. As soon as Ryan takes his position on the stairs and fixes his tie, every single light is turned to white and pointed directly at the back row, back-lighting him and exposing all of us. Oy. Debbie the stage manager reminds all, “Not until he says those magic words can you go wild.” I, for one, hadn’t forgotten.

addCredit(“David Cook: Frank Micelotta”)

And so the Top 10 march out in single file, with David Archuletainspiring the loudest screams even this early in the show. The girlsseem to be having some heel issues, particularly Carly and Syesha, whoare both wearing ridiculously high stilettos. Still, they look good,and tall, which you certainly can’t say for the first singer up,Ramiele.

As it turned out, Heart’s “Alone” was too big for little Ramiele. Inthe studio, her vocals were totally overpowered by those of thebackground singers who, in all honesty, handled the song with a lotmore confidence. I guess that’s what makes them pros. But I’ll give herprops for filling that big a room with some serious belting, even if itwasn’t all that. Not a great start to the show, but not to fret, JasonCastro was up next.

Jason casually strolls on to the stage, guitar in hand, almost as ifhe’s whistling while he walks. But on first sight, the room literallyexplodes in cheers and he has to retreat briefly back to the safety ofbackstage. Ryan, meanwhile, is joking around with some girls in thefront row who were holding up a “Seacrest is Sexy” sign, but they’reeasily distracted by a returning Jason. From afar, those pants lookedawfully tight and, perhaps, not so flattering, but at least he didn’tget the interview stool — that plastic, no-back, half-crested seat thatseems obligatory to TV interviews, which makes anyone who sits on itfeel and look painfully uncomfortable. In fact, Jason’s problem tonightmay have been that he was too comfortable, or laid back, as the judgesnoted. Still, Sting’s “Fragile,” with the Spanish touch, was a smartchoice, as it’s not only an international hit, but beloved by multiplegenerations. Not that Jason did it justice, of course. I agree withSimon whole-heartedly and actually think I did hear it sung in a subwayonce by a dude in dreads— could it be? Nah.

Syesha is next in line, still looking for balance in her stilettosas the video rolls. Note to the otherwise lovely soul sister: pleasestop with the creepy baby laugh. It totally freaks me out. I’m talking,like, night terrors. Enough! As for her performance, I found it a bitpredictable, but more than competent. The audience was definitelygiving her plenty of love, even if the arm sways were unnecessary.Compliments were plentiful after her go-round, and Syesha broke out alittle jig of joy. Very cute.

Even cuter? Jason Castro’s birthday surprise during the break. Wedidn’t quite know what was going on. All I could hear was Debbiescreaming into her headpiece, “Ryan, I need you… now!” and then satbewildered as the 10 finalists were brought back to the stage. But oncethe band broke into the happy birthday song, we all got the picture.Out walks Ryan with a huge blue and white cake and announces that todayis Jason’s 21st birthday, then tries to get Jason to actually dip hishead into the icing. And get all that gook in his hair? Jason wasn’thaving it, but he did wet his beak, as it were, and proceeded to walkoffstage with a blaring blue spot on his nose. Those Idol kids, they’re craaaazy!

“We’re partying now,” Corey declared as the crowd settled back intoplace, while Paula, running a bit behind from her brief break, tripsand nearly falls. How apropos. But she makes it back in time forChikezie, who we’ve all gathered by now, is her season 7 Elliott Yamin.Unfortunately, it was another snoozer of a performance, which left mewondering, were there no up-tempo options for the early ’80s? How aboutsome Duran Duran, people? Or a little “Careless Whisper?” You can’t gowrong with George Michael. The judges weren’t too hard on him, though.And I’m now convinced that Simon simply likes saying the name Chikezie,maybe that’s enough reason to keep him around.

As Chikezie exits the stage, a grand piano is wheeled on for BrookeWhite’s performance, and Randy and Simon confer while it’s shined.Ryan, meanwhile, heads to the tower for the next intro. Brookepractices a bit before the show goes live again and it’s hard to makeout which song she might sing. No matter what she chooses, Brooke’s gotclass, and looking a bit like Ivanka Trump, has an air of confidenceabout her that can’t be denied. And it’s precisely that self-assurancethat makes her false start not that big a deal. She worked it out, asRandy would say, and pulled it off.

Still, I’m jonesing for some rock at this point since all theseballads are making me drowsy. Fortunately, Michael Johns relieves thatitch with his bombastic Queen medley. Hell, even Ricky Minor waspumping his fist into the air and motioning for the crowd to get up offtheir asses. And did they ever oblige. Johns is another fan favorite,it seems, made all the more appealing whenever his shirt creeps up toshow a little skin. The screams are, at this point, deafening and hiscompetitive side is loving it. Sure enough, it was probably his mostmemorable performance thus far.

And for the ultimate rock one-two punch, up next is Carly, who alsoelicited some serious applause long before she hit her first note.There’s something very endearing about Carly, and while I’m still a bitbefuddled by the fact that they’ve yet to mention her former attempt atstardom, there’s no denying she can carry a tune — any tune — likenobody’s business. But I can’t help thinking, as I’ve written before,that she does have a bit of an advantage, simply because she’s beentaught to work a crowd. Then again, there’s nothing like anembarrassing childhood picture (even if it was shot professionally) todraw out the sympathy vote, and those unruly curls may have clinched itfor Carly. But back to the singing: she was great. Like, leap yearsbeyond the rest. And the thing about Carly is she makes it lookeffortless. I couldn’t tell if she was nervous, it almost seemed likejust another day at the bar. Still, the vocal gymnastics at the endwere unnecessary and kind of killed the momentum. Not everyone can beBeyoncé, girls, and some shouldn’t even try. As she gets her critique,Carly fusses with her dress, which, due to its apparent tightness, hadwiggled its way up several inches, and when the comments are mediocre,you can almost hear the crowd collectively gasp— or maybe that was inresponse to her bathroom mention, which I couldn’t quite make out. Toomuch information? Probably, but that seems like Carly’s way.

Looking a little defeated, Carly exits and now comes the big moment.The girls up front are getting restless, sign holders are at attentionand you just know little David Archuleta is about to walk through thatside door. Once again, the applause-o-meter is in the red. As Davidgets interviewed by Ryan, girls are pleading out loud, “Take me to theprom!” David attempts to concentrate, but the screams don’t stop. Thatis, until he starts singing and everyone looks around helplessly,obviously thinking, “What song is this?” It’s a random Australian hit,as it turns out, and one I vaguely remember hearing on New York’s WPLJin the mid-’80s. It was forgettable then and just as much so now.Still, he gets an enthusiastic standing ovation, which seems tobewilder some of the judges. Indeed, Paula actually strays from thescript for a moment: bluntly asking why he couldn’t have picked anAmerican song. And Simon’s take is that it could have been a theme parkperformance, with which I totally agree. It was not David’s night — maybe he’ll be able to make it to his May prom after all.

It’s time for another breather, as the judges exit and even Debbiethe stage manager takes a seat on the tower stairs. Two more to go, andnext up is Kristy Lee Cook, who’s teetering on the brink ofelimination. It was not lost on this crowd that tonight is her make itor break it moment. We’ve all concluded by this point that CarrieUnderwood she’s not, but there’s still something sweet about KLC and itwas obvious that people are still rooting for her. As for her song, “GodBless the USA,” reaction was decidedly mixed. I saw a lot of eyesrolling, and some teary one, too. Did she sing it well? It was actuallya bit shaky from where I sat, but there’s no doubt this “clever” choicewas designed to drum up the patriot vote and mobilize Southern support.After all, that’s how you win Idol, right?

Will she stay another week? That’s still a bit iffy, but David Cook(pictured) most certainly will. He took the stage looking happy andready, pointing to his baby photo and laughing, then getting serious inan instant. As the music kicked in, I had this sense of dread, that hewas going to pull out the acoustic version of “Livin’ on a Prayer” orsomething, but he ended up surprising us all. His twist on “BillieJean” was the performance of the night and had Nigel Lythgoe dancing inthe aisles, Paula on her feet, and the rest of the room grooving along.To say that it went over well would be a massive understatement. “Youmight be the one,” Randy hollered at the end (a sentiment he repeatedsome three hours later when I ran into him at a nearby restaurant) tothe rousing approval of the rest of the room. Insane or amazing? Howabout both?

And so the evening ended on a major high note, as Ramiele ran out tohug David, and the rest of the Top 10 filed in for one final goodbye. Iducked out a little early to retrieve my Blackberry and ran into DannyNoriega outside looking for where to pick up his (no special cell phoneprivileges even for ex-contestants!). We both headed to the backstagedoor, where the Idols come out to sign autographs and pose with fans.Tonight’s crowd is bigger than usual because the Jonas Brothers justplayed on Dancing With the Stars and some of their leftoverfans stuck around in hopes of getting a glimpse at David A. But it wasDavid C. who got the extra-special attention tonight, as you could seewhen dozens of fans clamored for a moment. Actually, both Davids — as well as Jason Castro, who didn’t seem at all fazed by his performance —were being pulled in every direction and certainly look to be the fanfavorites. KLC, staying true to her theme, handled the line of fansalmost as if she was a campaigning politician (Hillary could learn athing or two from Kristy). Still, I couldn’t help but overhear onewaiting gentleman who asked a girl standing next to him, “What’s hername? Kimberly?” But the one that stood out for me was Brooke, whoseems like just a genuine person. “I was so happy for Kristy, I ran upto her after she got off stage,” she said, sharing the love. As for herown performance? “I’m happy because last week was so hard on me.” I’mtelling you, the gal’s got class and that goes a loooong way.

So who’s heading home tonight? I’d put my money on Ramiele. What do you guys think?