REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
If you ever wondered what the kids on Glee did during their summer vacation, the answer might be Disney’s Camp Rock, The Musical. With space unavailable at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, Panic! Productions booked a road trip featuring its cast of chiefly Ventura County teens, staging the show at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood. Camp Rock, which is directed by Barry Pearl, opened last weekend and continues through May 22.
Camp Rock is the theatrical version of the popular 2008 Disney Channel movie starring the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, which was a huge hit, but not as big as its similarly-themed predecessor, High School Musical. Like HSM, Camp Rock features an ensemble cast of energetic teens in a lightweight story about two rival summer music camps, each led by a former member of the legendary Wet Crows rock group.
Like the kids of Glee‘s William McKinley High School, Camp Rock deals with two warring teenage show choirs: the kids of Camp Rock, led by good-hearted, former Wet Crows bassist Brown Cesario (Paul Panico) and its arch rival, Camp Star, headed by smarmy, win-at-all-costs Wet Crows drummer Axel Turner (Scott Strauss). Camp Star has unlimited resources, and seeks to draw defectors from Camp Rock over to their side, luring them with the promise of a state-of-the-art recording studio, an IMAX theater, and all the trimmings. They are able to get four recruits, including the well-connected, materialistic diva Tess Tyler (Zoe Reed), but all the rest of the kids stay loyal to Cesario.
Husband-and-wife playwrights Robert L. Freedman and Faye Greenberg’s story is yawningly predictable, a distilled, simplified version of the film. The play’s characters are cardboard cutouts: a lead romantic couple that is on the outs, a Jets/Sharks romance between Camp Rock’s Nate and Camp Star’s Dana, and a “dramatic” final “camp-off” competition, which is televised on national cable to see who gets bragging rights. Of course, in true Babes in Arms fashion, the survival of Camp Rock itself depends on whether or not its campers win the competition. The songs, which were written by a tag team of veteran pop songwriters, are all derivative numbers that resemble those that flood teen-pop AM radio stations. (Example: Act II’s opening song, “Introduce Me,” sung by Sam Herbert and Jade McGlynn, is a dead-ringer for Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”)
But Barry Pearl elevated the material by bringing on choreographer Keenon Hooks, who created high octane, challenging dance numbers that the cast embraced with energy and enthusiasm. The cast is constantly in motion, either dancing or moving around the few set pieces that serve as benches or platforms on the spare stage. The vocal talent is also superb all around, led by Allison Martinez and Gabriel Nunag, who play the central couple, Mitchie and Shane. Mitchie is smart, talented, and ambitious, with a powerhouse voice, while Shane is the charismatic lead singer of Connect 3, Camp Rock’s popular boy trio. Zoe Reed is properly haughty as Tess Tyler while Trae Adair is effective as Luke, Camp Star’s glowering, egotistical front man who is fully loaded with prime dance moves.
The remainder of the large cast includes Noah Varav, Elaine Panico, Betya Conn, Bailey Stillwell, Kailee McFerran, Mack Balleweg, Jaden O’Neal, Justin James, Adelle Panico, Madison Foreman, Jamie McRae, Tate Downing, Maya Galipeau, Ashley Thomas, Ali Zatlin, Kylie Vincent, Haley Ligsay, Tatum Krainman, Hannah Cohen, and Jenna Shechter.
The production shows a lot of hard work by the cast and their families, who volunteered their time to design ads, produce artwork, man the snack bar, and provide transportation to the often exhausting rehearsals. Camp Rock is Barry Pearl’s second effort directing a Panic! cast of teens (after last year’s 13), many of whom have performed with various Ventura County organizations, such as Young Artists Ensemble. Pearl enjoys working with young talent more than he does performing himself. And he should know; as a boy, he appeared on Broadway as Randolph MacAfee in Bye, Bye Birdie. That memory helped inspire him to encourage today’s Ventura County future stars by giving them experiences that will prove invaluable to their budding careers.
So although Camp Rock won’t win any Tonys for hard-hitting drama, it’s still a highly entertaining exercise for youngsters to work as a team to put on a successful show almost by themselves, just like the kids of Camp Rock. Bravo to all of them.
Disney’s Camp Rock the Musical plays through May 22 at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For tickets, visit thenohoartscenter.com.