Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: Camp Raging Hormones

By Michael Block

I never went to summer camp. Well I did. It was day camp. But that’s not the same as sleep away camp. That’s usually the source of story in entertainment. So what is about sleep away camp that writers are so found of putting into story? The fond memories of course! But what are those memories? According to Camp Rolling Hills, camp is all about raging hormones and not the fun and games to be had all summer long.
With a book by David Spiegel and Stacy Davidowitz, music by Adam Spiegel, and lyrics by David Spiegel, Adam Spiegel, and Stacy Davidowitz, Camp Rolling Hills is a generic camp show where the fun and games don’t take the main focus, instead picking romance and the hardships of pre-teen crushes and the crises they form. The boys and girls of Camp Rolling Hills reunite for another rousing summer of fun but when first time camper Robert, a new cog in the equation, arrives the summer is turned upside. Cabin turf wars, love triangles, and the meaning of friendship encompass the short months at the kids’ summer getaway. Camp Rolling Hills has material that is instantly relatable, even if you never were a camp kid. Spiegel and Davidowitz allow the relationships of the characters to take center stage. But the characters within are brazenly stereotypes. In the post “High School Musical” age, we are all in this together and the various cliques and types can interact through a common bond. While they did give each character an individual identity, it’s a shame how standard they truly were. From the geeky kid to the cool girls to the jock to the tomboy, Camp Rolling Hills has them all. The cabins each get six campers. Six boys and six girls. And yet there is absolutely an expendable boy and girl in each group that do little to further the plot. Cut these characters and the story is still told and there’s one less body to have to handle, especially when each kid is given a verse to sing in a song. Streamlining is everybody’s friend. On the surface, this is a show for kids. They’re not going to pick up on the nuances of the story. But Spiegel and Davidowitz’s book is a bit hap-hazardous, experiencing some minor plot holes. They were smart to introduce the characters through song as it helped engrain the nicknames in your head. Tracking them all and their narratives wasn’t always the easiest. Spiegel and Davidowitz brush the surface when it comes to modern themes. From death and divorce, Camp Rolling Hills has the power to relate to kids experiencing similar situations. They were right to not give everyone a “woe is me” plot line but when they did, it has to be expanded or have more emphasis. Adam Spiegel’s score is sugary but nothing special. It invites the kids in. But like many shows with a youth company, Spiegel’s music fell into a trap. It's not an overly tricky score but without a company of A+ kids, the score sounds weak and ineffective. Is this something fixable in the future? Likely not but it’s something to keep an ear out for.
photo by Sarah Marie Mayo
Camp Rolling Hills is the epitome of kid fun. And everyone in this cast had fun. On that front, it was a cohesive company. Completely at the same level? Not so much. But that allowed some nice individual performances to stick out. On the kid side, Mitchell Sink is a star. As the food connoisseur Brian “Play Dough” Garfink, Sink has impeccable timing and the ability to land a joke with ease. Sink really was the breakout kid of the show. Though his part was not as nearly as large, David Hoffman as Ben(jamin) Dover, the kid with the biggest adult-themed nickname, has a star quality to him. One of the only true triple threats in the company. James Ignacio had the task of playing new kid “Smelly.” Even with a ridiculous nickname, he owned his character. He almost reached heartbreaking performance level. Over on the girls side, Beatrice Tulchin had an infectious sweetness to her. Her character fell to the background often due to overshadowing stories, but she showed much promise. In the realm of the adults, John Krause was absolutely one of the most grounded performers on the stage. If Spiegel and Davidowitz eliminated every adult in the story and left just Krause’s Rick, all would be ok. Though her character was small, her choices were big. Jillian Louis got caught up in character, one that had an odd purpose overall.
Director Jill Jaysen has great experience guiding a giant cast of kids. It helped keep the world in order. Jaysen fed into the silliness of Camp Rolling Hills while trying to pop out the real life themes. Perhaps it was her performers who missed these intentions but when it came to exploring the complexities of the situations, Jaysen seemed to only brush the surface paying more attention to the funny bits. But hey, this is kids’ theater. Scenic designer Gennie Neuman opted to give the cabin feel through bunk beds for each cabin. With festival limitations being a factor, what Neuman did was smart. Having the kids be the ones to operate the brakes on the structures? Not so smart. The costumes fell somewhere between intentional and pulled straight from the performers’ closet. While it was ultimately rectified when the kids wore their camp shirts, the grey counselor polos were just a boring choice. Choreographer Theresa Burns had her hands full. The chore of not only choreographing one show but then implementing two casts must have been a headache. Yet the dancing was simple and effective.
Whether it was the specificity of the production or the material, Camp Rolling Hills is a subpar kids show. The truth of the situation is that it's marketable. There is a future. There is just a lot of work to be done. It's transparent why the company was overstuffed but when it gets in the way of the big picture, it's hard to judge properly. Is this a show that wants to be performed on a grand stage, a la 13, or sent straight to middle schools? Either way, we’ll be venturing back to Camp Rolling Hills.