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The premise is an appealing one: In upstate New York there is a summer camp for misfit kids who share a love of live theater and all worship at the shrine of Stephen Sondheim. This camp really exists, and as the fictionalized Camp Ovation it becomes the setting for Todd Graff's energetic crowd-pleaser.

We're introduced to a handful of campers, all of whom seem to have developmental problems of one sort or another. Among them are a pimply teenaged drag queen, a romantically frustrated girl-next-door type, an overweight girl whose parents have wired shut her jaw, and the camp's bitch, a blond diva who's equal parts Britney Spears and Miss Piggy. However, the story of Camp revolves around the new boy, a nascent boy-band beauty named Vlad.

Vlad, played by studly newcomer Daniel Letterle, is the film's best creation, an amoral dreamboat who wants to please everyone he encounters, whether they be lonely peers or professionally frustrated instructors. However, Graff ultimately loses his nerve with the character, opting instead for a safe mopping up of the hurt feelings Vlad leaves in his wake.

All of the adults in Camp are negligible, with the sole exception of an instructor named Bert Hanley, a once-promising composer. Hanley, who's well-played by N.C. music legend Don Dixon, is now an embittered alcoholic who can scarcely hide his contempt for his charges.

The best scenes in Camp are the generously supplied production numbers from the plays these kids have to put up every two weeks. Unfortunately, much of the connective material feels slapped together like a hastily improvised summer camp production. This leads to some jarring juxtapositions. For example, the young actresses Alana Allen and Anna Kendrick stumble through a groaningly catty and deeply unfunny rivalry. But when they take the stage for their solo numbers both girls prove to be stellar performers who belt like nobody's business.

In a world of creamy-skinned, affluent teens in the multiplexes, Camp makes the nerds cool again. One only wishes the film had a script to match the exuberance of its prodigiously talented cast.

On Wednesday, Aug. 27, The Independent's own Godfrey Cheshire--an old friend of Don Dixon's--will introduce a special advance screening at Cary's Madstone Theater. The film, which begins at 7 p.m., will be followed by a musical performance by Dixon.

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