Camp Wanatachi: A New Musical
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 16, 2009
The energetic musical opening of Camp Wanatachi promises a frolicking summer at a Christian's girls camp. A troop of mostly female counselors and campers, fueled by religious faith and raging hormones, sings of their hopes for what may happen "This Summer." From the eclectic music and lyrics we sense this is NOT an excursion into cliche musical comedy territory, but a journey into brave new territory. But this promise is only partially fulfilled; after 75 minutes everything comes to an abrupt STOP with none of the stories developed, let alone resolved. A budding romance between two female campers is tantalizing, but who knows what happens after their one moonlight walk. Nor do we see what develops between two celibate but enraptured counselors on their next 5:15am jogging date. And we desperately need some clarification of what the two characters billed as "Hobos" and dressed in goth/leather gear are trying to do by meddling with Camp Wanatachi's walkie-talkie sound waves.
Either this is a total rebuff of any conventional structure or the team ran out of time. I wager that that lead creator Natalie Weiss, attempting to write, direct, compose, co-choreograph, and perform with the cast, has bitten off more than any individual artist can chew. It's a shame because Weiss offers a unique perspective to the familiar turf of the struggles of Christian youth (think of an alternative, edgier version of Saved.) She has comic fun with her characters without diss-ing Christianity per se, and before its jarring end, the show seems to be moving toward a positive vision of sexuality (both homo- and hetero-) and authentic faith in harmonic coexistence. The score (credited to Weiss with Travis Stewart, and musical director Conrad Winslow) is a unique hybrid of electronic backbeats recalling the '80s synthesized sounds of Flashdance and Footloose, layered with live instrumental accompaniment and dissonant melodies that carry Weiss's quirky lyrics, and the cast boasts soulful rock voices.
The girl-on-girl dynamics among the central quartet of campers—Samantha Daniel as Lauren the busty mean-girl and pack-leader, Biet Simkin as Titi the slut, Amy Gironda as Daisy the goth-nerd, and Aleque Reid as Janna, the spiritual lesbian—are played with gusto. The actors manage to embody their stereotypes and express cattiness while also bringing heart and individuality. Weiss herself sparkles as the awkward counselor Corky, who is in love with both Jesus and male counselor Joel (Jonathon Roberts, appealingly goofy in an underwritten role). Jenny Lee Mitchell, Greg Couba, and Lauren Bahr round out the strong ensemble.
While it's exciting to have a live, eight-piece orchestra sharing the stage and interacting with the cast, the blend of miked voices, live instruments, and amplified electronic music becomes a muffled cacophony in the Dixon Place venue. One wishes that sound engineer Andres Quiroz could achieve a balance to help us to hear this complex music. The show cries for an outside director who could attend to the overall flow as well as the dragging pace of the scenes, and for clearer choreographic choices from Weiss and Sheila Bandyopadhyay. Weiss has a fresh, exciting voice, and hopefully she will have a chance to complete and clean up some of this rough edges of this show. Meanwhile it feels like camp was cancelled midway through the summer, and we were all sent home too early.