On a very theatrical night of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, Syesha goes cabaret, Carly rocks, and Brooke melts down
Carly Smithson, Syesha Mercado, ...

Okay, American Idol fans, here’s the ultimate Andrew Lloyd Webber-night head scratcher: Can you do more damage to your credibility by remembering every line of your script than by noticeably flubbing your lyrics?

In the case of tonight’s American Idol episode, the answer is a resounding ”yes!”

On one hand, we had Brooke White’s jaw-dropping stop-and-reboot on ”You Must Love Me,” David Archuleta’s badly botched second verse on ”Think of Me,” and (sigh) even Carly Smithson’s rhyme-busting substitution of her song title (”Superstar”) when she should’ve repeated ”Jesus Christ” on her first run-through of the chorus.

Though these obvious gaffes didn’t exactly bolster the trio’s fortunes tonight, they couldn’t come close to the integrity-immolating antics of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and even Simon Cowell, who might as well have been reading their critiques off cue cards written by Nigel Lythgoe himself.

Yes, folks, it appears that in a post-Taylor Hicks era, Idol doesn’t trust its 29 million viewers to do the right thing. And that means when a preordained member of the final two forgets his lyrics for the second time in seven weeks, all three judges flagrantly ignore it. (Paging Wayne Brady! On second thought, scratch that.) And when a cannon-fodder contestant like Syesha Mercado dares to deliver a showstopper that’s oozing with sass and sex appeal, you will not hear one word implying that she’s in any way a threat to crack the top three, only the nagging implication that she’d be better off pursuing a career in musical theater than getting her hopes up for a ”This Is My Now” moment.

I know, I know — the show has always played favorites to a degree, but tonight’s pimping was so out of control I’m wondering if it’s worth going to my DVR and watching Idol back in slo-mo, just to be sure the producers aren’t slipping in subliminal messages — ”Vote for an all-David finale, or a newborn seal will die!” — at regular intervals. Yet with all apologies for putting big-eyed, white-furred baby mammals at risk, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid.

Which isn’t to say Little David’s ”Think of Me” didn’t have its merits. For starters, I appreciated the kid’s efforts to reinvent the showy stage ballad in a more contemporary (or at least adult-contemporary) fashion by infusing it with some acoustic-guitar action. And interestingly enough, by taking Lloyd Webber’s advice and keeping his eyes open during his performance, Little David seemed more emotionally connected to the material than he has in weeks. That said, how could Paula use the phrase ”absolutely perfect,” and how could Randy dub David ”the one to beat” following a performance in which the line ”Imagine me, trying too hard/To put you from my mind” got reworked as ”Imagine me, [mumblemumble] softly/[Mumblemumble] my mind”? (I’m not even gonna harp on the lack of breath support during several big notes.) And conspiracy theorists take note: The show’s producers chose to cut to a weird overhead shot (showing the back of David’s head) at the very second he began to struggle with the lyrics. Yeah, Simon called it one of Little David’s ”weakest performances” but then promptly declared the performance was ”absolutely gonna get you through to next week.” To take an adjective from the cranky British judge: Appalling!

At least Little David himself had the courage to look out into the audience and mouth what looked to me like a sheepish ”sorry” — though whether it was to his dad, to his fans, or to Lloyd Webber himself, I’m not certain.

NEXT: Brooke breaks down

The weird thing is, even if the judges had done their jobs, called out Little David’s mistakes, and opined that he’d put himself at risk of a bottom-three moment, there’s no freakin’ way America would’ve given him the boot, certainly not after the Brooke White International Incident of Season 7. (I use ”international” both to note the grandeur of her catastrophe and also to acknowledge the Argentine setting of the musical from which she drew her number.)

Let me pause here for a moment to collect my thoughts, maybe even dab the corners of my eyes with a Kleenex.

Look, I like the Brooke. I can even envision a day in the future (probably somewhere around Thanksgiving 2008) when I stroll down to the record store (all old-school-like) and pick up her CD. Because I like the timbre of her voice. And because her song selections over the past 10 weeks indicate that she may actually produce the kind of material that would fit into my iPod as easily as butter finds its way into the nooks and crannies of an English muffin. (Side note: I am totally going to cheat on my diet before I finish writing this column.)

But as far as her ”You Must Love Me” goes, you might as well steal an o right out of the woman’s name, because her Idol dreams broke right there on the stage tonight for everyone to see. It wasn’t just the fact that Brooke ”lost the lyric” (her words) only a few seconds into Madonna’s Evita deathbed ballad, promptly stopped the band, and basically cried, ”Do-over!” As Simon pointed out, the flub seemed to shake the G-rated nanny to the core, and it made the performance tense and uncomfortably tremulous. Indeed, Brooke’s escalating nerves over the last few weeks — the piano blunders during ”Hero,” the tears at the end of ”You’ve Got a Friend” — seem to indicate that the Idol stage isn’t the right venue for her. Perhaps an intimate club with a maximum audience of 1,500 (where no teenage girls robotically wave their arms in the front row) would be a better fit? I think at this point even Brooke’s biggest fans would have to admit that a sixth-place finish should (and probably will) be her happy ending.

Still, while I think America would be doing the right thing if it sent Brooke and Little David to the bottom two, I fear the producers are probably more likely to get their way, and that’s going to be bad news for Jason Castro. And it’s going to make me very cranky.

Here’s the crazy thing: I’ve spent four seasons covering American Idol for EW.com, and never before have I been more in agreement with Paula, and less in agreement with Simon, than with regard to their respective opinions of Jason’s ”Memory.” Granted, the guy probably should’ve Googled his song choice at some point in the last week — thereby robbing us of his ”I didn’t know a cat was singing it” sound bite — but his performance, well, I’m not even gonna try to pretend it didn’t touch me in a way that never would’ve happened if it had been trotted out in the traditional Big Diva Number fashion. Paula’s point that there was a Joe Cocker quality to the performance made perfect sense; Simon’s ”miserable” label left me aghast. I mean, there’s a purity to the dreadlocked dude’s voice, and an emotional connection so deep, it transcends the occasional wobble of pitch. And yeah, I know I’m veering dangerously close to a Paula-ism (”It further identifies your unique being as an artist!”), but I guess my point is either you get him or you don’t. And I get him.

NEXT: Carly’s ”Superstar” turn

Of course, if Jason avoids my fantasy bottom three, then who would join Brooke and Little David on the ugly space-age stools? That’s where this season is getting tough, because I can’t say Jason outperformed Syesha or David Cook, or vice-versa. Can’t we just call it a three-way tie for second?

Indeed, while Syesha has never been my season 7 contestant of choice, there’s no denying she was in particularly fine fettle during ”One Rock ‘n’ Roll Too Many” tonight. Her interview package (as usual) was a little too model-actress for my taste, as she pestered her famous mentor with the question ”Can I be animated?” (Um, when is she not?) But although Syesha started her number just a smidge off the beat and her last big note landed just a centimeter or two away from the shrill zone, she worked the stage, and interacted with the band, in a way few contestants have all season. And her choice of a flirty, up-tempo number and a sexy red dress was a refreshing change of pace for a contestant who’s chosen ballads in seven of nine previous performances. The judges may never give her the standing O she (thinks she) deserves, but I’ll say this much for her: She’s never quit trying to wow ’em.

Rocker David, meanwhile, wowed in a different way, and in a way that made complete strategic sense at this point in the competition. Sure, he could’ve put a Rocker! (TM) twist on ”The Music of the Night” or some other Lloyd Webber number, but after weeks of unexpected arrangements and heartfelt deliveries, the Cook’s recipe needed an extra tablespoon of straightforward, spot-on vocals. Because, surely, somewhere during that unsteady opening verse of ”Always Be My Baby” last week, the man’s detractors were groaning that Idol is a singing competition. Although Rocker David didn’t necessarily hit a home run tonight, he hit a double, right up the middle, which was exactly what he needed to do to secure his spot at the Nokia in four weeks. Even more impressive, he did it with his best hair ever!

Still, whatever happens at the finale, whatever horrid composition wins the Idol songwriting competition, my personal season 7 moment like this, the interval in which I believed, I flew without wings, discovered my now, and indeed, was made to feel proud, happened when Carly sang ”Superstar” (which my Idolatry collaborator Missy Schwartz, and also Lord Lloyd Webber himself, so wisely counseled her to do this week).

Honestly, I didn’t take any notes while Carly took the stage tonight. I was too busy bouncing up and down on my couch and squealing like an overstimulated teenager as the heavens parted, and the spotlights shone down and obliterated the dark cloud that’s been following my favorite Irish barmaid for the last several weeks. There she was — Carly! — clad in that divine paisley explosion, shedding her insecurities, throwing her soul down on the stage for everyone to see (while hiding her controversial tattoos), and belting out a banshee (up-tempo!) rock number worthy of her Guinness-soaked instrument. The judges, naturally, could only offer faint praise. Randy didn’t know if it was her best performance. Paula worried about the upper range. Simon thought it was a little shouty in the middle. Oh, and also, damn Carly for not bringing a batch of fresh-baked cookies to the judges’ table!

But none of it mattered. Much like underperforming LaKisha’s final, glorious surge on ”This Ain’t a Love Song” during Bon Jovi week last season, Carly’s shining moment ended with a silly Simon moment — her ”Simon Loves Me (This Week)” T-shirt. To which I say, Carly, my dear, quit trying to impress the guy. For those of us who dig you truly, madly, and deeply, there is no parenthetical required. Superstar, indeed!

Speaking of contestants who didn’t worry about Simon’s opinion, catch part 1 of our Idolatry interview with Kristy Lee Cook below. And then share with your fellow readers: What did you think of tonight’s performances? Which contestant will go home on Wednesday (and is that the same one who should go home)? Where do you fall on the Paula-Simon debate about Brooke’s stopping and starting her performance? And how did you feel about Andrew Lloyd Webber as a mentor (and as a theme night)?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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