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Summer Stock
by Mark Sells

Welcome to Camp Ovation, a camp where American Idol and Star Search collide with summer camp and Broadway musicals. A place where the theater arts are celebrated and performed by the nation's most gifted teenage singers, dancers, and actors/actresses. And a place where those who feel out of place in their normal lives can find comfort with others, and where everyone gets to have their moment in the sun. Marking the directorial debut of Todd Graff, a Tony nominated actor for his role in the Broadway smash Baby, Camp is an offbeat comedy drama with a lot of soul.

Set apart by their dramatic or musical uniqueness, the film's teenage characters are searching for an identity and looking to connect with others. They attend Camp Ovation over the summer to meet others like them and to put on a show in front of friends and family. Most of the attendees are making a return trip, with the exception of Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a 90210 type who causes quite a stir with his charm and good looks. Like Spellbound, where the kids are isolated because of their intellect, the kids at Camp Ovation are isolated because of their performing abilities. When not at camp, Michael (Robin de Jesus) is beaten up when he attempts to attend his prom dressed in drag, and Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a loner who must beg her brother to take her to the prom. Even Vlad, the picture perfect poster boy, is a pill popping, semi-autistic guitar player.

Despite their quirks and mannerisms, when the kids arrive at camp, they feel accepted. They go from situations where no one is like them to situations where everybody is like them. As different campers are paired with one another for different shows, relationships evolve. Vlad begins to take a liking to Ellen, Michael tries to reconnect with his parents, Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) begins working as a gopher for Jill (Alana Allen), and Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) must overcome a wired jaw.

As dysfunctional as many of the relationships seem, nothing compares to Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), the washed up choreographer, in charge of the camp. Hanley's last Broadway hit was ten years ago, and since then he has disappeared from the public eye to become a cynical alcoholic. Returning to camp, Hanley acts disgruntled and hard-nosed, determined to teach the kids (referred to as "freaks") a lesson in reality. But after some of his music winds up in the hands of the kids, it's the kids who end up teaching him a lesson he'll never forget.

In 1977, Carl and Elsie Samuelson created Stagedoor Manor in the Catskill Mountains as a summer camp catering to teenagers interested in pursuing theatrical careers. As the movie details, students go to camp, participate in a set of weekly auditions, and are cast in a variety of plays that are rehearsed for three weeks before being performed in front of an audience. The real camp performs 12 full-scale shows every three weeks in both indoor and outdoor theaters, everything from musicals to stage plays. Immersed in such an environment with professional instructors, students are given a chance to have their special "moment" and build lifelong friendships. This atmosphere quickly caught on and over a period of a few years, Stagedoor became a hot bed of talent. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Mary Stuart Masterson, and Camp writer/director Todd Graff himself all attended Stagedoor at one point in their lives.

The film also takes a lot of inspiration from Fame, the 1980 Alan Parker classic with Irene Cara, and music by Michael Gore. Gore won the Academy Award for his musical score, and much of his music can be heard in Camp as well. There's even a tongue-in-cheek quip about Fame as the students go through a difficult tap dancing course. The screenplay was written about four years ago, well before the musical revival represented by Moulin Rouge and Chicago. Even more interesting is how the script was written -- practically a no-no in Sreenwriting 101: specific songs were selected by Graff as integral parts of the story without a notion as to whether such songwriters as Stephen Sondheim, The Rolling Stones, or Burt Bacharach would grant him the permission. But the gamble paid off, as Sondheim and the others came through. Oscar winning composer Michael Gore and Tony Award winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens also wrote two original songs for the film.

The music, it almost goes without saying, is the most impressive element in Camp. Because Graff was able to secure the songs he integrated into the script, the songs carry more meaning - connecting lyrics to characterizations and situations. It's powerful stuff. Highlights include Sasha Allen in the gospel heavy "How Shall I See You Through My Tears," (Telson/Breuer) and the vengeful "The Ladies Who Lunch" (Sondheim) by Alana Allen and Anna Kendrick. They demonstrate incredible range for such young songstresses. Yet, the one song that captured the potency of the film for me was "Here's Where I Stand," a beautiful song by Lynn Ahrens in which Jenna expresses her innermost feelings to her parents. Removing the braces that lock her jaw shut, Bert tells Jenna: "It's about time they met their daughter." And Jenna delivers - the song is strong enough to move one to tears.

The subject matter of the film is interesting all by itself, but Graff takes it to the next level by breaking a lot of the stereotypes and clichés of teenage coming of age stories. These kids aren't interested in sports, they're naïve and openly exploring their sexuality. And they can also be extremely manipulative and vicious towards one another. But beyond the quips and perverse dialogue, a film that relies so heavily on music to connect and make story sense can fall victim to plot foibles. In particular, a little more than halfway through, the story transforms from something highly innovative and original into an episode of Dawson's Creek. It becomes more about who slept with whom instead of concrete character development, resolution, and fulfillment. But despite a plot that peters out, Camp remains one of the summer's most enjoyable movies. Contagiously enthusiastic, the film energizes the audience with its assortment of gospel, show tunes, ballads, and duets. And when the music is silent, it feels good to reminisce about those teenage years when life seemed much simpler and it was easy to declare with Sondheim: "What I want most of all, is to know what I want."


©2003 Mark Sells
CineScene