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Review: MTV's "Camp'd Out: I'm Going to Performing Arts Camp"

April 25, 2009 | 10:26 am

MTV, the youth-oriented reality network that occasionally plays music videos, has broadcast its share of trash, yet somewhere within its corporate neural net abides a real sense of responsibility toward its still-maturing kiddie demographic. And whereas VH1, its older-skewing younger cousin, is a haven for the celebrity living dead, MTV celebrates the young and hopeful in shows such as "The Paper" (high school journalists), the anything-is-possible makeover show "Made" and even the back-from-the-brink "T.I.'s Road to Redemption." There is drama enough whenever you watch kids being kids, rocketing as they do between dead certainty and utter confusion.

"Camp'd Out: I'm Going to Performing Arts Camp," which premieres today at noon (with subsequent airings Sunday at 7 a.m., Monday at 2 p.m. and Thursday at 9 a.m.) is a subset of the network's "True Life" documentary series, which in the past has covered subjects including "I Have Acne," "I Have Schizophrenia" and "I Work in the Sex Industry." (Other episodes of "Camp'd Out," have been set at a snowboarding camp and a rock camp.) It covers some of the same dramatic ground as the current MTV series "Taking the Stage" (about a performing arts high school) but with a lake and everyone in shorts.

It spans nine weeks at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, a sprawling Catskills compound that offers courses in music, dance, theater, art, circus and magic. But theater is the focus here, specifically musical theater, because that sort of stuff works well on TV, and because the dream of Broadway burns as bright among the emerging generations as it once did for Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in the world according to Busby Berkeley. It may be a Broadway dominated by adaptations of Disney princess films, but it is Broadway all the same. And they don't kid around at French Woods: Productions include "Les Miserables," "The Producers," "Carousel," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Aida" (the Elton John musical, not the Verdi opera).

The film follows three girls in whose eyes the lights of the Great White Way glitter brightly: Lauren is the outsider, relatively new to the camp and desperate to break out of the chorus. ("I'm Prostitute Number One," Lauren writes home of her part in "Les Miz.") Alana is the sort-of middle child: a seven-year veteran, hard-working and talented but overshadowed by star camper Mia, who likes making it look easy.

Even at two hours (minus half an hour or so for commercials), it doesn't quite jell into drama; it's more like a mosaic suggesting a drama or one of those yearbook pages full of crazy cut-up pictures. And its flow is hindered rather than helped by the steady stream of pop songs that line the program from end to end. These may have been scientifically proven to stimulate pleasure centers in the teenage brain, but it is not what camp sounds like.

Not surprisingly, much of the show has to do with girls and boys and who likes whom, as fluid a state of affairs as the setting would lead you to expect. (When we meet Mia, she is being kept apart from her last year's love, who has graduated from student to counselor and is now off limits. "It's a little bit Shakespearean I guess the way forces out of our control are holding us sort of apart," she says.) But the best parts concern the work, its demands and its rewards.

Though these kids are all equally dedicated, they are not equally talented, and "Camp'd Out," in contradistinction to what parents and teachers like to say, does not suggest that hard work will ever compensate for that. Quite the reverse: We see that, as in high school, there are impenetrable hierarchies, drawn here along lines of natural ability, physical beauty and inborn sparkle.

"You don't understand," Lauren sobs to her mother at the end of the summer; she has finally been given a moment to shine, and now camp is over.

"I know," coos her mother, like a mother. "You've got a lot more lifetime to live. Promise."

-- Robert Lloyd