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Film Review: July 2003

Camp

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Musical theatre and film lovers, rejoice! Camp is the surprise gift of the year, a joyous, laugh-packed, tuneful big screen musical delight. That's right – its a bona fide musical, with songs both old and new, and a fresh story that infuses the old "hey kids, let's put on a show" formula with a vibrant dose of 21st Century energy. Camp is a treat, and the soundtrack CD is an instant must-have for every collector. It amazes me to say it, but Moulin Rouge and Chicago were not accidents – with Camp, we can finally believe that the movie musical is back! Hallelujah!

The opening credits are a bit confusing, as we see teenagers in disconnected vignettes ranging from a tuxedoed hunk making a speech in his bedroom mirror to a drag queen being savagely beaten when he tries to attend his junior prom in a dress. It all comes together as we wee these kids gathering for the bus ride to summer camp. However, when that bus load of kids bursts into a spirited rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," it dawns on you that this is not a typical bunch of campers. They are headed to Camp Ovation, where the weeks will be spent putting on plays and taking classes in voice and dance. Here, the performance-loving kids who seem like freaks back home can be themselves, living the kind of theatre-centric lives they may never know in the so-called real world.

Many are returnees, but one handsome and talented newcomer can't help drawing attention – he's straight! With tons of charm, he wastes no time becoming everybody's favorite. His romantic adventures set off all sorts of hilarious dramas, but his sincere love of performing also brings everyone together for the all-important closing benefit that redeems the entire summer.

Tony-nominated actor and screenwriter Todd Graff wrote and directed Camp, inspired by his own memories of summer performance camp. (He filmed it at the very camp he attended as a teen – talk about authentic atmosphere.) The result has all the brains, heart and imagination a great musical needs, and then some. Without any big name stars or glitzy editing, we get an unpretentious and utterly irresistible gem of a film. The mix of fine new songs by Michael Gore and Lynn Ahrens (among others) with classics by Sondheim and Bacharach (among others) fits effortlessly into the story of unleashed teen egos, hormones, dreams and emotions. Michele Lynch and Broadway's beloved miracle worker Jerry Mitchell have staged some great dance sequences, including a showstopping "Turkey Lurkey Time" that's looks good enough for any professional production of Promises, Promises.

The cast includes a soul satisfying array of young talents who take this material and work it for all its worth. The dreamy Daniel Letterle is handsome perfection as the straight hunk with a guitar in one hand and everyone else's hearts in the other. (And he sings too!) I loved Joanna Chilcoat as the usually neglected girl who wins the hunk's heart – her rendition of "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" is one of many surprise hoots. I want to see a lot more of Robin De Jesus, who is sensitive and winning as the drag queen, and Sasha Allen (with awesome vocals provided by Tiffany Taylor) sets off some surprise fireworks as an overweight girl who comes into her own singing the fiery "Here's Where I Stand."

Alana Allen is exactly right as a hateful, man-hungry egotist. Anna Kendrick, who stole Broadway's High Society, performs another happy theft here as the most ruthless big screen backstage backstabber since Eve Harrington. Don Dixon turns the clich├ęd character of a has-been composer into a touching, believable depiction of a cynic who still carries a passion for the theatre in his rum soaked heart. And when a certain legendary composer makes a cameo appearance as himself, musical theatre buffs will wonder why their parents didn't send them to a camp like this one!

I will be back to see Camp, over and over again. Why? For one thing, its been years since we had a first-class musical film to help while away the steam of midsummer. No matter what time of year, this is simply one of the most enjoyable films I've seen in years – musical or otherwise. Is it another Chicago? No, it is another creature altogether. Original, easy-going and heartfelt, Camp is a film that musical lovers will treasure for years to come. Treat yourself to a screening ASAP – and grab the CD while your at it. It includes some nifty CD-ROM features that will help keep you sated until the DVD comes out!

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