Camp

 

Robin Clifford
Robin Clifford 
Camp
Laura Clifford
Laura Clifford 
A group of talented kids and a washed up Broadway director arrive at Camp Ovation for a summer of music. For the kids, it is the start of their musical careers and all of the wonderful possibilities. For Bert Hanley (Don Dixon) it is the culmination of a rise and fall of a professional lifetime. He finds solace in the bottle but one of his students, Vlad (Daniel Lettrle), finds some of the composer's unpublished music and Bert gets another chance to shine in "Camp."

Robin:
Freshman director and writer Todd Graff seems to be strongly influenced by what must have been multiple viewings of the movie "Fame" before he laid pen to paper for his screenplay of "Camp." It is an earnest, if derivative effort that has some good songs, OK performances but an uneven style. The young cast lacks experience and come across as amateur - except for when they perform which, in some cases, come off quite well.

It is a typical, if overtly gay, collection of kids from all walks of life - except they all seem to have issues with life and family. Michael (Robin de Jesus), before heading off to camp, tries to attend his junior prom in drag. Of course, he gets the crap beat out of him and seeks solace with his brethren at camp. Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) has self-esteem issues and another of the girls arrives at camp with her jaws wired shut by her parents in lieu of sending her to fat camp. Vlad, the only straight guy in camp, as far as I could tell, is a hit with the ladies - especially Ellen and super bitch Jill (Alana Allen), a sultry wench who usually gets what she want. Shy Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) idolizes Jill and puts up with her abuse - until one day...

The best things about "Camp" are some of the individual performances. Kendrick's Fritzi gets the most development as she transitions from Jill's meek and mild servant to her hardened and capable rival. Fritzi's revenge is sweet. Too bad there wasn't more of her in the film. Daniel Lettrle, as Vlad, is bland in character and his sole winning point in the film, for the ladies, is that he is heterosexual. Don Dixon does a competent job as the trouble composer who final accepts the acclaim from the mouths of the babes in his care.

The musical numbers, and score by Stephen Trask ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), have a lot of energy and are well choreographed and, for me, the real draw to "Camp." The whole teen angst thing left me cold but I can see where it will appeal to the young, primarily gay, audience it will attract to the art houses. I give it a C+.

Laura:
In a parking lot full of buses gather a teenage diva with her own Eve Harrington, a young Latino who attended his prom in drag and the homespun girl who enjoys his company, an overweight teen whose parents have had her jaw wired shut and a new guy with a guitar who will be desired by them all.  They all have stars in their eyes and talent and this summer they're all headed to performing arts "Camp."

Writer/director Todd Graff's (writer/coproducer, "Angie") fictitious Camp Ovation is based on his experiences at Stagedoor Manor, a Catskills theatrical camp whose alumni include Robert Downey Jr. and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  His affectionate, frequently funny valentine to Steven Sondheim and kids with greasepaint in their veins is a lively, if unevenly constructed, romp.

The film is chaptered with playbill headings, listing play name, author and date of debut, but disorients with its out of context opening number "Father, Sister" sung by Dee (Sasha Allen).  Graff's enthusiasm for cutting to the chase too early is an early indication that performances may not always smoothly segue from the story, but even if the scenes don't always flow into each other, they always entertain.

The summer camp ensemble's centrifugal force is Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a Matthew Modine lookalike who sets everyone's hearts aflutter, including his roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus).  Vlad's audition piece, an acoustic rendition of "Wild Horses," wins over the camp's instructors and musicians as well, but he's befuddled by his placement in the avant garde play "Midnight Sun," which places him in a dumpster with two girls. One of those girls, Michael's friend Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), develops a crush/friendship with Vlad, but camp diva Jill (Alana Allen, looking like a cross between Brittany Spears and Ellen Barkin) beats her to the punch with a bold play.  Jill is unseated by her own ambition, though, especially after she casts out the adoring Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) who had been acting as her personal maid.  Vlad's need to be liked by everyone causes weird romantic entanglements among himself, Michael, Ellen and Dee, but the friendships hold.  On a more positive note, Vlad's refuses to back away from the negative vibes of former musical playwright, alcoholic camp instructor Bert Hanley (Don Dixon).  He finds Hanley's unpublished songs and arranges one of them ("Century Plant") as a surprise. Overcome with emotion, Hanley agrees to using his work for the camp's final show, which unbeknownst to him, will be attended by Steven Sondheim.

Graff excels with his cast of unknowns, all of whom deliver such polished performances that you could swear you've seen many of them before.  Robin de Jesus gives an accomplished turn as the young Latino with the cujones to vamp in drag but the insecure sensitivity of a lonely romantic.  Anna Kendrick almost steals the show with an onstage takeover, stepping into"Ladies Who Lunch" mid-song after felling leading lady Jill (Allen) with Woolite. Allen, ostensibly the camp's premiere performer, is quite capable of holding center stage. Letterle is convincing as a narcissistic manipulator who nevertheless maintains sympathy. Chilcoat has an open, trusting quality as a talented girl next door type.  Tiffany Taylor doesn't get much of a chance to act, but belts out the show's climatic "Here's Who I Am" with conviction.  The only member of the cast who isn't entirely convincing is Dixon, who gives the impression of a real artistic director trying to play one.

Graff stuffs plenty of humor into the proceedings, beginning with a "M.A.S.H."-like omnipresent loudspeaker which tells the camps residents what they should be doing and where.  An underutilized sports councilor practically begs campers to join in his games but is met with studied indifference.  A Black camper complains that he and little brother Petie cannot relate to their roles in "Fiddler on the Roof" - cut to the 3 foot Petie cast as the love interest in "Dreamgirls" against Ellen, trying to relate to her Supremes-style wig. When Vlad asks Michael ('He called me Mike!') if he's every experimented with heterosexuality, Michael replies "What, slept with a straight boy?"  Graff goes off the rails suggesting that Michael sleeps with a woman 'for' Vlad although this situation is redeemed somewhat by more searching explanation from Michael.

Original Music by Todd Rundgren (song "The Want Of A Nail") and Stephen Trask ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") is neatly matched to the well and lesser known Broadway selections used throughout.  Anyone who's ever hummed a show tune or pulled props and wardrobe from an attic to put on a show should have a good time with the kids at "Camp."

B

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