As a sprightly group portrait of happy campers who “gotta sing, gotta dance,” Alexandra Shiva’s “Stagedoor” gives a whole new meaning to a familiar phrase: “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” Documentary follows five teens attending Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, a Catskills summer camp for would-be Broadway babies and self-proclaimed “theater geeks.” By turns comical and compassionate, technically proficient pic could score in theatrical playdates if imaginatively pitched to mainstream auds drawn to other recent, well-received nonfiction fare.
Shiva’s most impressive achievement here is her ability to communicate universal verities through specific details. As a Stagedoor instructor notes, almost all teenagers “want to be someone other than who they are.” That desire is all the more intense for a teen who feels “different” from his or her classmates. (A counselor estimates that at least 70 percent of the male campers are gay.) And it’s hard to feel anything but different if you’re a teen who prefers “Mame,” “Annie” and “A Chorus Line” to Usher, Nelly and Eminem.
At Stagedoor, however, campers cavort with simpatico peers while learning lines, mastering dance steps, and rehearsing one of the musicals staged at the end of three-week summer sessions. In short, they belong.
A few of the young troupers — like Robert Wright, a spirited 15-year-old from a crime-plagued Newark neighborhood — already have Broadway credits. Others — like 14-year-old Taylor Rabow, an attention deficit disorder sufferer who’s focused only while acting on stage — are at camp for reasons other than showbiz ambitions.
But the majority of campers appear to be Broadway hopefuls with more burning enthusiasm than professional experience. In addition to Wright and Rabow, “Stagedoor” pays particular attention to Nicole Doring, a self-deprecating would-be comedienne; Randi Kleiner, a take-charge type who’s attended Stagedoor Manor for nine of her 17 years; and Maddy Weinstein, an endearingly blunt-spoken 15-year-old who freely admits that, back home, she usually feels overshadowed by her autistic brother.
Not surprisingly, insecurities and bruised egos are commonplace among the campers. Some have to cope with less-than-supportive parents. (A dubious mother says of her daughter: “I suspected she didn’t have huge talent. At least, she wasn’t bursting with it.”) And all of them have to work with directors and instructors who demand better-than-best efforts.
At least one acting coach seems rather too fond of brutal mind games. And another staffer shames her charges into apologizing for rowdy behavior.
Still, “Stagedoor” remains mostly upbeat and celebratory as it follows five subjects through the rigors of preparation and performance. To varying degrees, each one blossoms in the spotlight.
Pic sounds an affectingly bittersweet note at the end, suggesting that spikes in self-esteem fueled by the Stagedoor Manor experience may be short-lived. On the other hand, there’s always next summer.