You should already know the rules for this Tony-winning contest: It's a spelling bee, the winner of which will compete at nationals. A ragtag group of middle-school misfits are up for the spot, each of whom spools out bits of backstory as they step up to the mic to spell brain-benders like boanthropy, astrobleme and elanguescence.

In other words, it's a PG-13 version of A Chorus Line, with spelling instead of dancing. For Portland Center Stage's formidable cast of fake kids, the format works well, swiftly changing focus from one oddball contestant to another. The catch is the need to find a compelling (read: kinda serious) reason for each contestant to be there. And 90 minutes of unpacking family woes—my absentee mom is on an ashram in India; my two gays dads are turning me into a lisping, overachieving nervous wreck—quickly becomes an S-L-O-G. Luckily, the show is far more successful when it wanders into sillier territory: Slump-shouldered Isaac Lamb plays science nerd William Barfée ("It's pronounced Bar-FAY," he continuously fumes) with hulking aplomb, especially while performing a soft-shoe number explaining his revolutionary full-body spelling technique, the "Magic Foot." Olive, a diminutive redhead sporting Coke-bottle glasses (Sara Catherine Wheatley), squeaks out a charming love song to "My Friend, the Dictionary." ("I love the indented border/ Every word's in alphabetical order/ Ergo, lost things/ Always can be found.")

Susannah Mars brings a brittle edge of frenzy to pantsuit-sporting former spelling champ and Bee host Rona Lisa Peretti while Gavin Gregory steals scenes as ex-con "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney, who dispenses soulful trills along with juice boxes as he escorts spelling bee losers from the stage. Some of the biggest laughs come from the real-life Bee contestants plucked from the audience nightly, hauled up onstage and forced to spell. At last Friday's opener, that included a pair of twentysomethings straight from PDX hipster central casting. The bearded one easily rattled off the correct spelling of "atheist."

Director Rose Riordan wrings every bit of potential humor and warmth from this ho-hum book and hokey score, and the PCS cast elevates the show with both clever performances and dynamite singing. The source material may only be a C+, but these spellers get an A+ for entertaining effort.


Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, alternating 2 pm Saturday and 7:30 pm Sunday performances. Closes June 27. $31.50-$68. $20 rush tickets available.