Through the Woods, en Route to Broadway
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
At Camp Ovation, a summer musical theater workshop for young people in upstate New York, the reigning pop deity isn't Eminem but Stephen Sondheim. Aboard the yellow school bus carrying the 6- to 16-year-old students from New York City to this miniature Oz, the fresh-faced passengers spontaneously burst into that jolly old singalong "Losing My Mind," from "Follies."
The sight of these perky, self-described freaks cheerily chirping a tortured love ballad as if it were "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" is the first of many drop-dead funny jokes that regularly punctuate "Camp." A crude but irresistibly effervescent movie cut from the same sequined cloth as "Fame," "Camp" couldn't be better timed to ride the coattails of "Chicago" to cult popularity.
Could a place like Camp Ovation really exist? Yes, believe it or not. Located at Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., it's called the Stagedoor Manor, where "Camp" was filmed in just 23 days. The film's writer and director, Todd Graff, is a Stage Door alumnus and former teacher, and "Camp" explodes with his passion for his subject. A cast of unknowns, who are every bit as talented as the finalists on "American Idol," sock home show tunes ranging from "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (from "Dreamgirls") to the movie's hilarious ensemble showstopper, "Turkey Lurkey Time" (the madcap Christmas party anthem from "Promises, Promises").
"Camp" is the offspring of "Fame" in more ways than one. Woven among the vintage show tunes are originals by several writers, including two ballads by the composer of "Fame," Michael Gore, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, that exhibit the same heart-on-sleeve sentimentality as that movie's "Out Here on My Own." "Camp," which the New Directors/New Films series is screening tonight and on Sunday (it opens commercially in July), is peopled with the same endearingly starry-eyed caricatures as "Fame," but there's a difference. These teenagers — black, white, Latino, gay and straight — display a hip, easygoing candor, especially when it comes to sexual orientation, that's pretty much unprecedented for a teenager-slanted movie musical.
With the exception of the milky-skinned, guitar-strumming Vlad (David Letterle), who delivers a mild-mannered rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," the boys at Camp Ovation appear to be gay. One major subplot follows the tortured friendship of Vlad and his roommate Michael (Robin De Jesus), a pimply, abject drag queen rejected by his family, who practically swoons at Vlad's feet. One of the funniest moments is a surprise birthday party for Michael in which all the students deck themselves out as drag queens and kings.
Another running psychodrama, which suggests a teenage variation on "All About Eve," involves Jill (Alana Allen), a snooty blond sexpot who makes a beeline for Vlad, and her worshipful acolyte, Fritzi (Anne Kendrick). When Jill summarily dismisses Fritzi as both servant and friend, the exiled doormat takes delicious, Eve-Harrington-worthy revenge on her former idol, upstaging her with a sultry, knockout rendition of "Ladies Who Lunch."
Meanwhile, Vlad hooks up with the insecure Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), who blossoms under his flattering attentions. Other smaller dramas involve the chubby Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose father has wired her jaw shut to keep her from overeating but who still sings up a storm, and Dee (Sasha Allen), a pop-gospel belter whose terror of becoming a lifelong gay-camp follower drives her to sleep around.
The last major subplot focuses on the personal renaissance of Bert Hanley (Don Dixon), a bitter alcoholic teacher and Broadway composer who hasn't had a hit show since 1989. It is Bert who delivers a harsh dose of reality therapy to the students in a tirade that laments the thinning out of musical comedy talent after the deaths of Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse and the metamorphosis of 42nd Street into a theme park. In his worst nightmare, he sneeringly imagines the students turning into members of that eccentric breed of musical comedy aficionados who live to collect out-of-print albums of obscure shows.
But for all the doses of reality that "Camp" dishes out, the movie, deep in its soul, is a delirious musical comedy romp that proudly adheres to silly but time-honored Broadway traditions. When Vlad comes upon a cache of undiscovered original songs by Bert, he organizes an end-of-the-season revue that lifts the teacher out of his self-pitying funk. True to formula, that revue is imperiled by the kind of last-minute crises that Mickey and Judy gamely surmounted, but of course, the show must go on.
"Camp" may be rickety, formulaic, overacted and tonally wobbly, but its spark of enthusiasm is so infectious that you have to love it for its faults. Just like the musical comedy revivals these students slap together with such maniacal zeal, the movie feels held together by not much more than spit and shoe polish. But in "Camp," those things are just another word for love.
Written and directed by Todd Graff; director of photography, Kip Bogdahn; edited by Myron Kerstein; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, Dina Goldman; produced by Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Jonathan Weisgal; released by IFC Films. Running time: 115 minutes. This film is not rated. Tonight at 9 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and Sunday at 3 p.m. at MoMA Film at the Gramercy Theater, 127 East 23rd Street, Manhattan, as part of the 32nd New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the department of film and media of the Museum of Modern Art.
WITH: Daniel Letterle (Vlad), Joanna Chilcoat (Ellen), Robin De Jesus (Michael), Steven Cutts (Shaun), Vince Rimoldi (Spitzer), Kahiry Bess (Petie), Tiffany Taylor (Jenna), Sasha Allen (Dee), Alana Allen (Jill), Anne Kendrick (Fritzi) and Don Dixon (Bert).