MANNHEIM, Germany -- More than 280 fans packed the Top Hat Club in Mannheim Saturday night to hear the 25 remaining Mannheim Idol contestants belt out their best in competition round 2.

In the end, four competitors were sent home, leaving 21 in three categories to vie for a spot in the finals during round 3 competition starting at 6 p.m. Saturday.

The competition started with 38 contestants who auditioned June 6 for the 35 total slots in youth, teen and adult categories. The club consistently has been packed as each contestant attempts to win over the audience with his performance.

Just like "American Idol," three judges give immediate feedback to each contestant, but it is the audience vote that determines who stays - and who goes. The finals, featuring the "Final Five" in each category, will be held at 6 p.m. July 4 as part of the Mannheim German-American Summer Fest.

The contestants are competing for various cash and travel prizes, along with the title, "Mannheim Idol 2009." The youth winner will receive $250 cash, the teen winner will take home $250, and the adult winner will be awarded $500 cash and a trip to Sea Pines Lodge, courtesy of AFRC's Camp Darby.

Having reached the halfway point in the competition rounds, the four-week event has been a resounding success with more than 100 fans on Facebook, and AFN Heidelberg's Sgt. Chad "The Hitman" Highland providing updates on the Morning Show every day.

If you're wondering who the judges are and what in the world qualifies them to judge a vocal talent competition, here's the skinny. Mark Lewis (Randy Jackson) has over 30 years of musical entertainment experience, including a contract with Sony Music®, numerous music video productions and a song writing/recording history of more than 15 years. Jacqui Haggerty (Paula Abdul) has over 35 years of award-winning vocal, choreography, acting, directing and broadcasting experience, and has worked with numerous recording artists. Highland of AFN Heidelberg's Morning Show has more than 20 years of broadcast entertainment and disc jockey experience, and is the favored judge of the audience, as he very accurately portrays the "Simon Cowell" of the group.

In the youth category, tiny 8-year-old Victoria Raymond wowed the audience with her incredibly powerful vocals on "The Night Before the Light Goes On," while the teen category saw the first tie-breaking scores for Mechalonte Delapierre's (14) Macy Gray-like performance and Summer Jacobson's (16) soulful rendition of Morrison's "You Give Me Something."

In the adult category, top-notch favorites Joan Fortin and Deborah Michaels received near-perfect scores from the judges for their performances of "At Last" and "Lady Marmalade," respectively.

The idol program is under the direction of Haggerty, FMWR Business Division chief. She was the first to attempt the concept in 2001 at Ramstein Air Base. "Nobody thought the idea would fly at first," Haggerty said, "but then over 2,000 people descended on the Freedom Fest field, and the production became the pilot for USAFE Idol, BOSS Idol and Military Idol, now known as Operation: Rising Star."

"Every person in the audience gets one ballot when they come through the doors," the judge explained. "Folks who decide to order dinner or snacks from the adjacent Winger's restaurant receive additional ballots as a value-added service through USAG Mannheim's FMWR Business Operations Division, in addition to those purchasing a beverage from the Top Hat throughout the evening."

Fans also can get extra ballots if they opt for something from Primo's Express, a short walk across the parking lot.

(Editor's Note: Princess Brown-Bukert is the Mannheim FMWR Marketing director.)