THE NASCENT ZEALOTRY of Portland's politicized classes no doubt manifested as a refusal to stand up during the Pledge of Allegiance in high school, but The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will have even the staunchest ideologue dutifully reciting along with its cast, contestants all in the titular bee. This goodhearted show is just that irresistible, from its utterly charming use of audience participation (six words I thought I'd never write) to its endearingly awkward, self-aware musical numbers (six more!).
As the documentary Spellbound abundantly demonstrated, spelling bees are intense. Tiny children with overdeveloped brains, spelling words like "smaragdine"—there's something borderline creepy about that combination of precocity and immaturity. All of a bee's pressure and nervousness make for very unforced human drama (tune in to the National Spelling Bee this Friday for a look); translating it into a musical sounded like a recipe for disaster. I imagined something like Annie, only with overachieving Indian kids instead of abused orphans.
But, in the hands of Portland Center Stage, Putnam County Spelling Bee is thoroughly charming. The 90-minute, intermission-less show follows six children and three audience volunteers through a regional spelling bee championship. One kid wears a foxtail attached to his poncho; another spouts precociously liberal political screeds; a third hides a pretty face behind messy hair and a slouch. They're recognizable types, and filled in admirably by an adult cast that channels youth without becoming too cloying. Nicely grounding the kid contingent is local favorite Darius Pierce, the driest actor in town, who gets in the show's best lines as the judge charged with defining each word and using it in a sentence. Rose Riordan's intelligent direction and Daniel Ordower's simple, pulsating light design allow an element of anxiety to seep in around fringes of the production, tempering any cutesiness with the reminder that these kids are under a lot of pressure. The entire show has a rare energy—the audience feels very much in the room, and the show's participatory moments lend a sense of spontaneity and fun.
Portland Center Stage can be spendy, but options exist for the budget conscious: $20 rush tickets are released 20 minutes before any show that isn't sold out, and pcs.org frequently has ticket deals. Make this one happen.