The Childrens Crusade

Notes on Camp, with apologies to Susan Sontag:

To paraphrase Lady Windermere's Fan: It's absurd to divide movies into good and bad. Movies are either charming or tedious.

Camp, in which acting-bugged teens spend a summer putting on musicals, is largely the latter, with bursts of the former. One gets the sinking feeling, while watching, that many will love it, so why not you? You, who sat on your hands during Chicago. The characters are nearly all sympathetic: token straight Vlad (Daniel Letterle), gay Michael (Robin De Jesus), nice Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), statuesque powerhouse Dee (Sasha Allen). Comic relief comes in the form of sorority-type Jill (Alana Allen) and mousy Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), who finally claws her way into the spotlight for Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Michael has a framed photo of Sondheim on his nightstand. This is overkill, a self-congratulatory setup for Sondheim's cameo.

Vlad asks Michael, with impossible Midwest innocence, "You're a gay, right?" The indefinite article is Camp.

One of their teachers is bitter drunk Bert Hanley (Don Dixon, co-producer of the only R.E.M. albums that still bear listening). His sole hit show, The Children's Crusade, appeared decades ago; rumor is he's been working on something ever since, though his disheveled state makes that seem a polite fiction. He vomits on Vlad, who cleans up with . . . the score for Bert's secret, genre-spanning musical.

Hanley's opus is the most intriguing plot point: the lost masterpiece, shades of Henrys Darger and Fool, manuscripts stacked at the mouth of madness. (In Sontag's classification, this would belong to the art partaking of "the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement.") The Camp potential of this is slim, though, and Camp moves on to a rousing if predictable musical finale, in which Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose father has had her mouth wired shut to bring down her weight, belts out some self-affirmations.

The show tunes are as much fun as anything in, well, Chicago. But the best sequences derive from the roots-rock songbook: Vlad's plangent "Wild Horses" and a rousing take on Victoria Williams' "Century Plant," which masquerades as one of Bert's lost songs.

Waiting for Guffman and Rushmore mounted theater as fond parody. The form itself came wrapped in irony; the self-consciousness staved off Camp. Camp is self-conscious when the teens aren't singing, but the quote marks fall away as soon as they lift their voices.

Camp was written and directed by Todd Graff; produced By Danny Devito, Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Christine Vachon and Jonathan Weisgal; and Stars Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Tiffany Taylor, Robin De Jesus and Don Dixon. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.


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