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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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