Is Kris Allen This Year's 'American Idol' Dark Horse?

He may lack Adam Lambert's flair, but the unassuming singer from Arkansas could surprise everyone.

Think of Kris Allen as the tortoise to Adam Lambert's hare. Musical-theater veteran Lambert is the unabashed front-runner in the race for the "American Idol" prize this year — the subject of fawning attention from the judges, the audience and eBay entrepreneurs. But week after week, Allen has slowly but surely been turning in solid, well-received performances, such as Tuesday's reinterpretation of the disco classic "She Works Hard for the Money."

Could the soft-spoken worship leader from Conway, Arkansas, possibly pull an upset in a season that has often felt like a bullet train barreling toward a showdown between Lambert's bombastic theatricality and Danny Gokey's gospel-splashed sincerity?

MJ Santilli, founder of the popular "Idol" fan site, said that Allen has accomplished an underappreciated feat in going from cannon fodder the judges didn't seem to think would move beyond the semifinals to someone they didn't mind and now to the top five. "I think contestants that do the best carve out a niche for themselves and stick with it," she said. "They know who they are as artists and follow a path."

While Lambert has been praised for rearranging songs to suit his style every week, Santilli said efforts like his torch-song take on "If I Can't Have You" don't surprise her anymore.

"I would expect him to do that," she said. "He's consistent, but my comments early on were that Kris didn't have a lot of charisma, but as the show progressed he seemed to find his footing on the 'Idol' stage and he grew more confident." That self-assurance came after early digs from the judges that Allen was too bland and wasn't showing the panel any signs of his personality or what might make him an interesting recording artist.

While Santilli doesn't think Allen will win because he is so understated, lacking Lambert's showy persona and Gokey's big voice, she could definitely see him in the top three and possibly even as a second-place finisher. "I'm beginning to think that Gokey is losing steam," she said. "And you're hearing Kara say things to Kris like, 'You could make a record right now,' which makes it seem like she'd be interested in working with him."

Entertainment Weekly "Idol" expert Michael Slezak sees how it's been easy for Allen to fly under the radar, when "the judges refuse to give you credit no matter how good you are." Pointing to his solid performances over the past several weeks, including a breakout version of the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" from "Once", his thoughtful reinterpretation of Don Henley's "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" and this week's Donna Summer makeover, Slezak said Allen's problem is that he's much more subtle than the flamboyant Lambert, which causes him to be overlooked. "With him, it's much more about the emotion of the song and trying to tell a story through the lyrics rather than hitting these giant notes and using vocal bombast," Slezak said, comparing Allen to such low-key season-seven finalists as Brooke White and recent major-label signee Jason Castro.

"The judges never use the word 'front-runner' or 'contender' [with Allen]," said Slezak, who pointed to the early drumbeat for a Lambert vs. Gokey finale, which was most recently stoked on March 23 during a joint appearance by Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson on "The Tonight Show." Cowell mentioned Lambert and Gokey as likely finalists, but not Allen.

"For some reason, they won't give Kris effusive praise, but the 'Idol' audience is smart and they don't need Mommy and Daddy to tell us who is good," Slezak said. "And if you notice, [Allen] has never been in the bottom three."

Agreeing with Santilli that Allen isn't likely to overcome Lambert's massive lead at this point, Slezak said he could see Allen placing second as Gokey's momentum appears to be stalling. "Some people felt David Archuleta was unbeatable last season, and then David Cook snuck up and did it," he cautioned. "There's still four weeks of live performances left, and now it's more than one performance a week, so if he continues to take risks, that's the key."

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