When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s in a suburban neighborhood, most
children spent their summers at home. If we were lucky, there was always one kid whose
family installed a swimming pool and he or she quickly became the most popular child on
the block. Otherwise, we contented ourselves with playing kickball in the street and riding
our bikes. The closest I ever got to attending camp was taking part in a six-week program
run by my high school drama coach. Those memories flooded back while I was watching
CAMP, the charming feature directorial debut of actor-writer Todd Graff.
Graff spent three summers attending Stage Door Manor in the Catskills, and later
returned as a counselor. His screenplay about those heady days is infused with wit and
affection. Although the script was completed several years ago, the film was unable to get
funding, in part because musicals had fallen out of vogue and there were issues over
obtaining rights to the songs that were an integral part of the story. Once Graff obtained
the permission of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (who makes a cameo appearance)
and following the success of such diverse screen musicals as MOULIN ROUGE! and
DANCER IN THE DARK, he was able to realize his vision.
CAMP is modeled somewhat on both the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films of
the 1930s and FAME, the 1980 Alan Parker-directed musical that followed several students
at New York's famed High School of Performing Arts. Both featured a multicultural cast of
talented newcomers who sing, dance and act. CAMP centers on three main characters:
Michael (Robin de Jesus), an Hispanic drag queen with bad skin, Ellen (Joanne Chilcoat),
an insecure, plain, yet talented young woman, and Vlad (Daniel Letterle), a handsome,
conflicted youth blessed with good looks and a desire to act.
While each of the youngsters is a misfit in "real" life, he or she finds kindred spirits at
Camp Ovation where every two weeks they put on multiple productions. In the opening
scene (featuring Sasha Allen, Stephen Cutts and the company delivering a rousing
rendition of "How Shall I See You Through My Tears" from The Gospel at Colonus),
Graff introduces these three protagonists and uses the song to indicate that this is not
going to be a comedy along the lines of MEATBALLS. There's an admixture of joy and
pain in that first musical number that captures the themes explored by the film. Yet the
film remains at heart a celebration of theater.
Graff's script is far from perfect, though. Some characters are not as fleshed out as
one might hope, and there a too many subplots, some of which get lost. Much more
could have been made of the plight of Bert Hanley (played by Don Dixon), an alcoholic
composer living off the fame of his one big success. And I truly wished there had been
more of the rivalry between the bitchy, superior Jill (Alana Allen) and the mousy Fritzi
(scene-stealer Anna Kendrick), but what exists is truly delicious.
The film's score includes an eclectic blend of rock/pop songs and well-known
Broadway tunes as well as two lovely new songs by composer Michael Gore and
lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Letterle delivers the plangent ballad "I Sing for You" and Tiffany
Taylor offers the showstopping gospel-tinged "Here's Where I Stand."
While CAMP has its flaws, the talented cast and Graff's overriding respect and delight
overcome any serious deficiencies. This film is one of the pleasures in a summer crowded
with overblown sequels and big-scale action films.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (mild profanity, sexual situations)
Running time: 114 minutes
Viewed at Magno Review One
|© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.