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By Merle Bertrand | March 17, 2005

Chances are, if more than 3 kids in this country share an interest in a given activity, someone somewhere will start a camp for it. As such, it should come as no surprise that there’s a place like Stagedoor Manor. Located in the Catskills, home of the old Borscht Belt string of clubs and resorts, Stagedoor Manor is a 3-week long summer camp for aspiring young stage actors. The campers run the gamut of experience and talent levels, ranging from those who aspire to a career on Broadway, to those just discovering their love for the theater, to those who just like to ham it up in general.

“Stagedoor” focuses on five such campers as they navigate the camp’s condensed crash course, during which time all attendees audition for, get cast in, rehearse, and then perform in a full-blown stage play. In addition, a specially selected “all-star cast” also puts together a separate cabaret show, which they then take on the road to perform for a handful of audiences at nearby resorts.

It’s this elitism between the cabaret kids, who are supposed to serve as role models, and the rest of the campers which provides the majority of what little conflict exists in “Stagedoor.” In fact, for a documentary about drama and all those who love it, director Alexandra Shiva’s lukewarm study displays very little of it. Nor does the film handle the story arcs of its supposed main protagonists very well, either. Instead, it’s almost as if Shiva selected each of her five subjects at random from what must have been hours of camp footage, and then tried to hinge the movie on them after the fact.

Stagedoor Manor frankly comes across as sort of a creepy place, where melodramatic drama queens, repressed sexuality, and overblown egos run amok…and that’s just the camp counselors. Throw in some normal teen angst, multiplied by budding, often-confused sexuality amongst kids usually regarded as misfits or social outsiders in the “real” world, and Stagedoor Manor becomes a seething cauldron of kids clamoring for attention. Imagine, a coupla hundred pre-teens and adolescents who are always “on.”

All of which only serves to reinforce the main gripe with this film: surrounded though we are by these volatile ingredients, the film’s main “pay-offs” are the cabaret performances before a small, mostly disinterested crowd of folks from the Greatest Generation — a sequence which evoked the vaguely depressing sensation of high schoolers performing for the local nursing home — and a clash between the cabaret kids and camp counselors…which actually occurred off-camera. Not exactly riveting stuff.

Though generally filled with interesting personalities — kids, parents, and counselors alike — “Stagedoor” appears to be more a slapdash labor of love rather than a polished piece of dramatic work. In that respect, then, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to one of the ambitious three-week productions the Stagedoor Manor campers strive to put on.

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