Dir. & writ. Todd Graff; feat. Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, Tiffany Taylor, Sasha Allen (PG-13)

At most summer camps, kids swim the butterfly and go on overnight hikes. At Camp Ovation, they make musicals, and the sports counselor shoots baskets alone. Camp is the story of a multiracial group of gawky adolescents who become stars of the summer stage. During one hectic season, they prepare and present a new production - Dreamgirls, Romeo and Juliet, Buried Child, Promises, Promises - every two weeks.

In his directorial debut, screenwriter Todd Graff draws on his own experiences at Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, New York, where he filmed Camp and where his fellow campers included Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Natalie Portman. A documentary about that summer haven for aspiring performers might have worked better than the stories invented for Camp. One camper, Ellen (Chilcoat), is so mousy off stage she had to pay her brother to take her to the prom. Another, Michael (Robin de Jesus), beaten bloody when he went to school in drag, admits: "I can't even straighten my hair." Although Vlad (Letterle) is straight and handsome (and an obsessive-compulsive), Michael is as smitten with him as are most of the female campers. One of the summer's directors has become a whiskey cynic in the decade since he had a Broadway hit.

In the tradition of Garland-Rooney movies in which kids put on a show that shows the world their spunk, Camp is an upbeat, sentimental story about the triumph of heart and talent over parental indifference, sexual confusion, artistic rivalry, and self-loathing. Everything comes together in a rousing performance before an adoring audience, including Stephen Sondheim, who puts in a cameo appearance and joins the applause.

The production numbers are rousing showstoppers, but Graff, grafting on lame plot lines, is not content to stop with them. The show, he thinks, must go on. •

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