The slender young woman steps up to the mic on the big stage of the Stargazers Theatre & Event Center. A background track is cued. Her sweet, lilting voice is well suited to the Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen."
Even from deep in the audience, though, I can tell she's nervous. Make that terrified. Second verse in, her voice is trembling. Suddenly she's lost the words entirely and is desperately looking around for help.
I'm too far away to see her expression, but I know what I'd be doing up there. In fact, down here at the judges table I'm panicking for her - and for me, because in a few moments I'm going to have to weigh in on her performance.
There was a time when talent contests were held in church basements and the winners got a ribbon and a $20 bill, not a multi-million dollar contract. Today, though, reality TV has jacked the stakes considerably higher: Celebrity judges propel a few lucky contestants to a career-making finale and the networks reap the Nielsen ratings.
There are no big money contracts or instant 15-minutes of fame at stake in thea dult state finals of "Colorado You Got Talent," a volunteer-supported and run competition originally created to help at risk youth.
Modeled after the similarly titled TV reality contest, the 4-year-old competition showcases regional winners with talents that include singing, stand-up comedy and on this occasion, fire-juggling performance art.
I've sung with the occasional band, so I know precisely how horrifying it can be to perform on a stage in front of strangers - especially when you're sober. My hat is off to folks with the moxie to not only put it all out there but to then say, "Score, please."
Seated at a roped-off table in the vocal audience, my two fellow judges and I are given a tally sheet and told that, during each three-minute act, we are to ascribe numerical scores in each of five categories, including stage presence and technical skill.
Event coordinator Mattie Peltier tells us to go for upbeat and constructive comments.
"No Simon Cowells allowed."
She also says to keep everything under five seconds, because, with 31 acts, there's a lot of talent to get through tonight.
The contestants are vying for a prize package of $500 and deals with a professional production company, talent agency and photographer.
No pressure, right?
The competition opens big with Montezuma County band Freedom Company performing their spot-on version of the 3 Doors Down hit "Kryptonite." When they finish, emcee Mark Sobeck calls for the judges' response.
I'm flop-sweating by the time Susan West, a Denver artist and the judge to my left, wraps up. I take the mic and struggle to read my scribbled notes in the dim light.
"Um, great job guys. ... Try cranking the lead guitar and backup vocals because they got a little lost ..."
I pass the microphone right, to judge Chris Dorman, a comedian from Estes Park.
West leans over and whispers to me, "That was, like, 15 or 20 seconds."
I'm not surprised. My 30-minute workouts sometimes take a week.
A judge in the youth portion of the contest earlier, West is a pro at the positive feedback sound bite ("The train has left the station. Next stop, 'The Voice!'"). I try to follow her lead. Halfway through the first set, though, I am bankrupt of fresh positive adjectives.
One of us
Before the night is over, we'll see Larimer County's Randy Boyd, with a flawless rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Music of the Night," served up in full "Phantom of the Opera" regalia; Springs local Jeff "The Rock-n-Roll Pastor" Pederson, performing a spiritual in memory of his father, and Manitou Springs duo, Plastic Mojo - aka Fairlight DeTorres and guitarist Joe King - who close the competition with a raw and steamy blues number.
After the numbers are tallied, the winner is Illumicirque, a nine-member troupe of Dia de los Muertos-clad fire dancers from Grand Junction.
Of all the polished talent showcased that night, though, it is the performance by the terrified young woman who forgot her lyrics that sticks with me.
Not a pitch-perfect drone of reality TV, she's one of us.
As the young woman stood frozen at the mic and the background music churned on, Peltier strode out on stage, singing. Suddenly, the young woman seemed to remember her lines. By the time the chorus rolled around again, most of the audience had joined in.
I wish I'd been able to think of something profound to say her, as a judge; something better than, "You've got the ability but you need to relax."
But I was nervous, too.
For a full list of state winners in the 2013 Colorado You Got Talent competition, visit www.coloradotalent.org.