Camp

Count Camp as the rarity it is: a modern movie that’s funny and sweet. Musical theater fanatics will revel in its delicious details; the rest of us will simply enjoy some snappy, self-aware kids who have the lungs of Ethel Merman.

Writer/director Todd Graff based the film on his own experiences at a summer performing arts camp (he was 8-year-old Robert Downey Jr.’s counselor at Stagedoor Manor in New York) and his love for the place seeps from every frame. Most of the campers at Camp Ovation are geeks: slightly round Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) had to take her brother to the prom; gay Michael (Robin De Jesus) attended his prom in drag; fat Jenna (Tiffany Taylor) had her jaws wired shut; and put-upon Fritzi (Anna Kendrick) feels compelled to follow Jill (Alana Allen), the bitchy blonde, around.

Throwing things appealingly out of sync and at the base of the film’s love rectangle is Vlad (Daniel Letterle), the hunky straight guy who incredulously doesn’t know who Stephen Sondheim is. Sondheim, in fact, donated three songs to the soundtrack, giving "Camp’s" terrific music sequences real depth and authenticity. There’s no denying the power when Fritzi finally breaks out her chains with a kick-butt performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company.

Or how about a hilarious version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises and a moving rendition of Henry Kreiger’s "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going" from Dreamgirls.

Graff and his well credentialed team — including composer s Michael Gore of Fame and Stephen Trask of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, choreographer Jerry Mitchell of Hairspray, and music supervisor Tim Weil of Rent – know what they’re doing. They even throw in some classic rock, as Vlad immediately starts breaking hearts during his audition, singing the Rolling Stones’ "Wild Horses."

When the kids chat about tryouts, chiding each other about being trite with "Don’t Rain on My Parade," it’s only the beginning of the avalanche of musical theater references. The flow of jokes, though, is supported by the weight of the characters, who remain cozy misfits, not precious after-school special types or canned "American Idol" wannabes. The kids’ music coach, Bert (Don Dixon), an alcoholic composer who couldn’t follow up a Broadway smash, adds an appropriate dose of cynicism to the party, but it’s done in such an over-the-top, clunky way that his message about the world’s harsh reality is destroyed.

And why would the camp director allow such a nasty drunk to verbally abuse such talented, devoted kids? Yet this nagging question doesn’t even begin to detract from Camp’s overall good vibes and humor. Any movie beginning with a bunch of real kids singing serious gospel from their hearts in the rain, and closing with an equally inspirational and rousing pop song by Todd Rundgren, can’t be all bad.

– Leslie Katz

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