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'Idol' Tracker: Stunner in the Idoldome

March 12, 2008 |  3:39 am

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This day had long been promised. After the ups and downs of Season 6 and its mixed post-mortem; after the greatest minds in entertainment convened to regroup, retool and restock the most powerful franchise in television history, showing its first hints of wobbly mortality; after the back-to-basics audition tour and the no-nonsense Hollywood week; after meeting and saying goodbye to a dozen hopefuls in the Top 24 level; after the boy who lives in his car, Danny Noriega, Kady Malloy, the David Hernandez revelations -- at last we return to the Idoldome. 

And what looks to be the most exciting season in "American Idol" history, can finally begin. (Side note: If this is the most powerful season in "American Idol" history, and "American Idol" is the most powerful show in the history of television -- in terms of rating impact relative to the playing field it surely is -- and if television is the most powerful entertainment medium ever invented -- communicating simultaneously with more people than anything previously imagined -- then can not one empirically state that we are about to witness the most powerful 22 nights of entertainment since the dawn of civilization?)

In the Idoldome, the excitement among the crowd and crew alike was electrified to the point of spasticness. The site of the new set had the crowd abuzz.  In person, the corrugated, welded steel theme of the superstructure has a bit of a Mad Max look to it, but the two-tiered floor plan brought a new level of grandeur to the proceedings, while the mosh pit up front insured a constant buoyant energy that the comfortably-seated-with-their-families celebs, who owned the now-removed front rows, never have brought. (Nonetheless, we were joined on this night by superstars Taye Diggs, Camryn Manheim and the great Kim Kardashian.)

Executive Producer Overlord Nigel Lythgoe prowled the new stage, wandering the edges of the pit, greeting guests, whispering instructions to the crew, and ultimately, taking the stage to personally warm up the crowd, touting the Lennon/McCarthy night and leading a synchronized arm-waving practice session. 

Notably, there were comparatively few signs in the crowd tonight suggesting that the demographic blocks have yet to coalesce around their candidates. Significantly, but not unexpectedly, the majority of signs present on this opening seemed to be for The Chosen One, David Archuleta.

And it was for this clash of giants that the crowd tittered with nervous energy until show time. Only one question remained: Would The Chosen One run away this season and never look back? 

What the Idoldome saw could never have been predicted 24 hours ago -- suddenly Season 7 is a wide open race between any number of possible contenders. The season promised in "Idol" scriptures seems about to come to pass: the strongest, but by no means immortal, young front-runner in "Idol" history facing the strongest general field in "Idol" history, including a darkly charismatic sultry male star, a transcendent Valkyrie rising to battle and a B team that refuses to fail.

However, after the long buildup, each had to take his or her moment alone on the two-story stage, facing the crowd, the judges and the millions. It is impossible to be in the Idoldome and not gape in awe at the brazenness it takes these young people to mount the stage.  A TV studio, Idoldome though it is, is a very cold room. The stage itself is a giant titanium apparatus that dwarfs mere mortal singers; the studio beyond is a vast hangar with inexplicable pockets of light and activity, camera booms soaring past, sleepy crew members lurking at the edges. This is no intimate nightclub, and every pulse of nervousness from a singer allows them to be swallowed up by the room. Like the gladiators they are, the singers must fight at every moment on stage to break through to the audience. 

Sadly for Syesha, the first singer to take the stage, her nerves made her a case study of how the room can devour you. Better was to quickly follow, however, in a night which seemed largely to belong to the B team. In what had seemed at best a two-man race, Amanda Overmyer, Brooke White, David Cook and Jason Castro all gave performances good enough, if not to make any of them immediate favorites to win it all, then certainly good enough to show that they belonged on this stage. In contrast with last year, where many went through a long getting-comfortable process and few ever owned the room, all the above performances met fairly rapt crowds reaching the upper registers on the applause meter. 

But by far, the most stunning single moment of the night, sending shock waves through the Dome, came during Chikezie's rendition of “She's a Woman,” at the point where the song suddenly switched tempos. From nowhere, Chikezie, with a flawless pre-interview, video package and riotous performance, suddenly claimed his rightful place at the center of the universe.

Carlysmithson I enjoyed a brief glimpse into life at the center of the vortex when the Idoldome’s Angel of Death Ryan Seacrest ascended to my perch in the bleachers to introduce Michael Johns. Warming up for his intro during a commercial break, the Angel read twice very quickly through his brief bit, and then turned to work the crowd, greeting and joshing with a few seated nearby. Noting my notepad, he asked me whom I was reporting for. I told him and asked him if he cared to comment on the evening. Not missing a beat, he wryly responded: “So far, I’ve been very impressed with me.”

As exciting as the strong performances by the B team were, it was at the end of the night that the competition suddenly ascended to a new level with the shocking first failure by The Chosen One. In the coming days, pundits will pore over how much TCO is aware of the enormous expectation that has been placed on him. At 17, he is by far the youngest contestant in the competition. No less than this newspaper, not to mention every "Idol" prognosticator on Earth, declared the race a mere formality.  Could any 17-year-old not falter under such pressures?  Or will his off-night work in his favor, his downcast expression earning him sympathy votes from his adoring tween fan base? (If you believe Dial Idol’s predictive power, which I one-third do, tonight’s performance didn’t hurt him a bit.)  Would perfection have become boring and worked against him?  If he truly was genetically engineered and crafted in the gods’ workshop to fulfill the "Idol" prophecies, could tonight’s misstep have been part of the master plan?  Better to show you are human tonight than nine weeks from now, after all.

But suddenly, The Chosen One has something much bigger to fear then his own off-night’s reviews, potentially a fear much bigger than even the dark threat posed by the Duende From Down Under. Rising from the ashes of the dismissed women’s ranks, tonight there emerged a contender so strong, deep, complex and powerful that even the powers of The Chosen One may, in the long run, be no match for her. No one commanded the Idoldome tonight like Carly Smithson (pictured).  Her rendition of “Come Together” simply transformed the competition -- her early promise instantly realized and propelling her, a Valkyrie to avenge the maligned female talents -- to the very front ranks of the competition. 

As the show ended, the 12 returned to the stage to stand for a few extra shots. They chatted comfortably, seeming friendly and at ease with each other. In the darkness before a shot, The Chosen One and The Duende whispered to each other. Tonight, they stand stunned that their entire lives and careers have paid off bringing them to this stage. But tomorrow night, Angel of Death Seacrest will visit them all on the couches of doom to remind them that, for the lucky ones, there are a very long 11 weeks ahead to Armageddon.

-- Richard Rushfield

Photos courtesy of Fox

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