By Adam B. Vary
Updated March 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

Ah, the Idoldome. It’s my fourth year recapping the behind-the-scenery at American Idol, and my third inside the double-decker, steel-and-mylar-and-HD-jumboscreens behemoth that is known as the Idoldome. Best I can tell, the set itself hasn’t changed much at all since The Season of Kradison — the only major difference to the studio I caught was the addition of three rows or so to the rear of the audience.

Still, the place never fails to impress with its über-blue ridiculousness. It really does usher in a sense of grand occasion and drama to the Idol experience, and after visiting the intimate and easygoing Idolcupola last week, I understand that even better. In just five scant days, these 12 kids went (if I may venture into a didn’t-research-this-at-all-on-Wikipedia sports metaphor) from a triple-A stadium in Pawtucket to Fenway Park in Boston, and I gotta say, I was expecting it would cause several of them to fly fast and far off the rails, Sanjaya-style. So I’d count the fact that my ears were only inflicted with some bland pitchiness and awkward reggae stylings last night as a victory for Idol Season 9’s first foray into the big leagues.

I arrived inside the Idoldome as crew members were still putting some final touches to the Idoldome’s ThunderScreen, taking my seat underneath the giant neon Idol logo that hangs over the stage right side of the audience for the occasional sweeping wide shot. (I count it a personal victory that, upon noticing said giant logo, I only freaked out about the earthquake that had jolted many in Los Angeles awake that morning for maybe 30 seconds.) The CBS Television City pages dutifully filed people into their seats, while Idol producers taught the Sway Pit how to clap. Band leader Rickey Minor worked the crowd in a page boy cap and sweater vest. I noticed that the neon “meri” on the stage left American Idol spinning globe was flickering. And with 22 minutes to go until airtime, Jay the Substitute Warm Up Comic took to the stage. That’s right, dear readers; no Paula, no Cory the Warm Up Comic, and Kara is still making sense. What is the world coming to? (I understand that Cory will be returning next week, though, so no need to panic.)

Like most other Idol warm up subs, Jay thought it would be hilarious to bring audience members on stage to sing, although he did have standards: “No breathy Whitney Houston; no ‘Amazing Grace.'” After Kiki from Orange County gave up singing Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” after a single line, Jay eventually pulled up a guy who turned out to be Katie Stevens’ brother Ryan, i.e. the kid who brought his college roommates to the Idoldome as Katie’s personal cheering section. Wearing baggy jeans and a tight red polo, Ryan pulled out a solid take on Michael Bublé’s “Everything” that was pretty much better than anything his little sis has pulled off on the show.

With about 10 minutes to go, Jay was all set to start a battle of the sexes dance off when Debbie the Stage Manager stopped him so the production could get a generic shot of the audience, explaining “I think this is in case we have a wardrobe malfunction.” Idol audience perennial Camryn Manheim took her seat literally right in front of me with her unlikely guest, Sugar Ray frontman and onetime Extra host Mark McGrath. (In fact, should you be so inclined, you can see all three of us on camera for a hot second at the start of the show. That’s me clapping pensively behind McGrath.) Debbie then asked everyone to hold up their signs, and other than those adorable Katie heads, I really only caught ones for Crystal and Siobhan. Well, and the signs behind me that read “Forget Ferris, Save Simon Now!” and “Simon Should Stay — Just An Opinion!”

With four minutes to go, Debbie nixed Jay’s attempt to get a mom and dad on stage for another dance off. The Top 12 were brought out, and took their marks for the cold open. Didi and Crystal goofed around waving their arms in the air. Jay asked the crowd “to make some noise” with 30 seconds to go, and then Debbie immediately quieted everyone down. Cue Ryan, cue the moody red lighting, cue the opening credits, cue the Idols’ exit, cue the ThunderScreen, cue the judges’ entrance, cue ThunderStairs, cue Ryan again.

First up: Big Mike Lynche with “Miss You.” As I’ve noticed season after season, the sound mix within the Idoldome makes for a sometimes radically different listening experience than the one you have at home, especially for a big, up-tempo song, when the band is working at top volume. So Big Mike’s on stage dancing shenanigans, while still cheesy, at least matched the band’s intensity in the room. Also intense: Ryan’s sudden decision to get up in Simon’s face about giving Big Mike some constructive criticism. After Simon quipped that the two would “sort this out in my trailer,” one of the drummers did a rimshot. And in case the confrontation wasn’t plainly artificial on camera, the moment we went to an ad break, Simon and Ryan quickly laughed about it and moved on.

As they would for most of the night, the judges left the studio as quickly as possible for the ad breaks, with Ellen often leading the way, her wife Portia de Rossi always close behind, if not directly in hand. During the first ad break, the audience broke out into wild cheers as Ellen passed by, regular cheers as Simon passed by, a few random woo-hoos as Kara passed by, and no discernible change in volume as Randy passed by. Meanwhile, Jay began taking a demographic profile of the audience, asking for applause by kids, teenagers, twentysomethings, and so on, finally handing out dinner for two at a local DoubleTree hotel restaurant to an 81-year-old man sitting in front of me, and an 82-year-old woman across the aisle.

We came back from the break, Didi Benami tore through “Play With Fire,” and as the crew set up for Casey James’ set, the two shared a quick-but-friendly finger point. The band exploded as Casey began “It’s All Over Now,” overpowering the wannabe blues man to the point where his vaunted guitar work was often barely audible. After Ellen (figuratively) winked at the fact that Casey’s long blonde locks don’t do so much for her, Simon (literally) winked back at her with an impish grin while Ryan was giving out Casey’s call-in numbers. And once more, at the ad break Ellen walked off stage with Portia, this time clasping hands as if clinging on for dear life. As Simon and Randy chatted with two unidentified women in row nearest their table, Jay continued his 2010 census of the audience, this time polling the location of the audience’s home towns and everyone’s marital status.

Lacey Brown glided through “Ruby Tuesday,” and Ryan tried once again to make something, anything interesting happen on stage by randomly escorting Lacey around it. The judges vacated once more at the ad break after Simon gave Ellen a friendly shoulder squeeze. Jay moved on to actual birthdays in an attempt to give the youngest kid in the audience an iPod, and Camryn Manheim became vocally outraged when she thought the girl in her row was younger than the one Jay picked — until the snubbed girl’s mom says Jay got it right. Mike McGrath then said to Manheim, “I like your commitment to the contest, though.”

During almost his entire video package, Andrew Garcia held the mic stand as if “Gimme Shelter” could’ve started at any moment and/or it was soothing his nerves about leaving behind his acoustic guitar. After Kara was teased by Simon and Ryan about being too literal and too angry about the lyrics, she stalked off with a wee stank face, while trading some quick words with Simon. Ryan stayed behind to quickly chat with Ellen and give a kiss hello to Portia, and then was stopped so one of the wardrobe peeps could fix his pocket square. If it hadn’t already, Jay’s audience census entered the absurd when he asked “anyone wearing orange to make some noise!” Jay then requested that people who wanted to show off a special skill for an AT&T-related prize first show him their AT&T phones, forgetting that security checked everyone’s mobile at the door. Camryn Manheim decided to remind him: “No phones!” Mark McGrath volunteered that he’d juggle as his special skill; Manheim replied that she’d do sign language.

Katie Stevens eked out a tepid “Wild Horses,” and her brother’s college buddies roared in approval. The judges plodded off stage at the ad break, and Jay gave his mic to Leezette* (*spelling approximate), the (professed) AT&T customer who volunteered to sing the national anthem for her AT&T product-related prize (the identity of which I apparently never wrote down). She began a cappella, and sounded rather good; almost immediately Rickey Minor began bringing in the band section by section, and Leezette finished in grand style with just 30 seconds to go before we went to air. Ryan even jokingly gave out Leezette’s numbers as the judges began filing into their seats. But with all the commotion, Debbie didn’t count the show back from the ad break. With literally just seconds to go, Jay asked the audience for their approval of Leezette’s performance, just barely making it off stage as the Idol back-from-the-break theme ditty began. Whoops!

After Tim Urban’s video package, Simon sat way back in his seat, and during his performance, the Brit looked back at the audience, as if to investigate whether anyone could actually be grooving to the kid’s reggae take on “Under My Thumb.” (The squeals radiating from the Sway Pit would seem to indicate some people were feeling it; that, or that Tim’s form-fitting henley was one savvy sartorial decision.) Kara then asked Simon a question, to which Simon nodded yes, beginning a series of rather inexplicable interactions between the two of them. At the ad break, Kara immediately turned to Simon, thrust both index fingers repeatedly into his chest, and then leaned down to say something into his ear. With her back to me, I couldn’t tell whether Kara was kidding or not, but when she stood back up, Simon looked genuinely chagrined, and Kara quickly left the stage wearing the same stank expression as before. Randy waylaid the slightly dazed Simon to chat, pointing out the “Simon Should Stay — Just An Opinion!” sign while jokingly miming to its owner that she should rip it up.

When Kara entered again, she was talking with Ryan and exchanged just a few quick words with Simon before sitting down. During Siobhan’s Glambertian “Paint It Black,” though, Kara whispered something to Simon that caused him to break into a genuine smile — and that was well before the quirky Massachusetts native’s string of killer power notes. So I guess all was well again? Maybe?

Anyhoots, we went to an ad break. Ryan gave Siobhan’s glasses a quick cute pinch, walked over to Lee, and appeared to go over his penetrating questions about paint color with the nervous rocker. Simon was out of his seat after Lee’s “Beast of Burden” before the ad break outro music had even finished, but Randy took his time to fist bump a kid sitting with the Bowersox contingent before leaving with the other judges. They all quickly returned, Simon and Ellen arm in arm. Paige Miles managed make an actual impression with “Honky Tonk Women,” and Aaron Kelly sounded strong with “Angie” while looking like an 11-year-old kid with no idea about what to do with his arms.

As per usual, Ellen and Portia zipped out at the ad break, but Simon, Kara, and Randy stuck around for a bit to chat up some random bald dude who I think was one of the strategically placed body guards. Camryn Manheim and Mark McGrath took off for reasons passing understanding, leaving just as all four judges re-entered the Idoldome for Crystal Bowersox’s pimp slot performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” (I should take this moment to note that, unlike every previous season I’ve covered the show, the judges barely spoke to one another during pretty much every single performance, including Crystal’s.) After Mama Sox finished, Simon looked back at a roaring audience with a kind of detached bemusement.

The recap clips played as Debbie lined up the Idols, and out of all of them, Mama Sox seemed by far the most happy-go-lucky of the group, dancing with Paige and joking with Lee about maintaining a wide power stance. The 19 Entertainment logo chirped and the Idols headed off. Debbie kept the audience seated for Ryan to film a quick promo sans jacket, but we couldn’t hear Ryan’s audio, so all I know is that Debbie and another crew member deliberately walked into the shot. Like the pro he is, Ryan nailed it in one take.

And that, dear readers, was what you did not see on TV during my two-and-a-half hours inside the Idoldome. Phew! Tomorrow, I’ll download all the best details on tonight’s results show, but in the meantime, what did you make of the newest Idol Top 12’s first time performing on the big stage? Why do you think Kara was poking at Simon’s chest? And what would you write on your sign if you had a chance to sit inside CBS Television City’s Stage 36?