Off-Broadway Review: “Camp Rolling Hills” at the New York Musical Festival at the Pearl Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Camp Rolling Hills” at the New York Musical Festival at the Pearl Theatre (Closed Saturday August 6, 2016)
Book and Lyrics by Stacy Davidowitz and David Spiegel
Music and Lyrics by Adam Spiegel
Directed by Jill Jaysen
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Yeah, it’s always summer somewhere.” – Smelly, Act II, “Camp Rolling Hills”

The sixth musical number in “Camp Rolling Hills” is “A Reason to Smile” in which Slimey (camper Stephanie Gregson’s nickname) tries to convince new camper Smelly (camper Robert Benjamin’s nickname) that although “divorce isn’t easy soon you’ll see it’s not so bad.” This advice comes from a girl who has finished her bereavement process in exactly one year following the death of her father the prior summer.

Slimey’s (Betrice Tulchin) relationship with Smelly (James Ignacio) is main story line of “Camp Rolling Hills” with a variety of “typical summer camp” themes hanging loosely on that primary conflict-driven plot. The star-crossed pair quickly fall in love, fall prey to a prank gone wrong, just as quickly fall out of love, and eventually make it – literally and figuratively – to first base where the girls have buried the boys’ underwear following a revenge raid.

The creators of “Camp Rolling Hills” have been working on this musical for “eight or nine years” basing the characters and their pre-adolescent conflicts on their experiences at a “Camp Tranquility.” The result is a musical about a camping experience that might no longer exist. One wonders if the creators asked their young actors if they had ever attended summer camp and, further, asked them what their experiences were like. It appears the experiences of camping in the 1980s and 1990s have been simply transferred to 2016 without careful consideration about what “kids” are like today.

Adding an iPod here and a cell phone there does not address the complicated lives of contemporary pre-adolescents and adolescents. Life is not all about divorced parents or even the horrific loss of a parent. Children are facing these and far more challenging events in their lives. And the conflicts contemporary children experience would drive more complex plots than “tent raids” and girls “hating each other for real,” or boys dressing in girls’ dresses for a laugh. Children are struggling with their identity, their sexual identity, the dangerous worlds they live in, and whether those worlds will even be around tomorrow.

That said, a musical about retro-camping could be fun if the book, music and lyrics were sophisticated and interesting. Unfortunately, that is not the case with “Camp Rolling Hills.” Adam Spiegel’s 2014 “Cloned!” was brilliant. His music here has a dreary sameness about it providing a musical backdrop for songs that are literally spoken through with no interesting modulations or lyrical interest or tension. Likewise, the book and lyrics are bland and undistinctive.

The members of the cast work their best to enliven their characters. They often seem to be unsure of who they are supposed to be or what their “problems” are alleged to be. This confusion results in a series of sub-plots that generate little interest and fail to engage the audience in any significant way. And if the actors are having difficulty connecting to the musical, the audience also has to struggle to connect to the material. This musical does not tug at the heartstrings. Perhaps much of this difficulty relates to Jill Jaysen’s uninspiring direction as well as to the creators’ efforts.

“Camp Rolling Hills” needs to roll into the present as it moves forward in its development. This might seem difficult. But it is possible. To lift the show higher, the creators might consider a sleepover with a bunch of contemporary kids from multiple geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds and simply listen to their stories and observe how they interact with one another.