Camp Wanatachi: In Concert
By: Sharon Kurack
With the constant ever-present urgency to get voices heard from a community desperate for positive representation grows, I have the absolute honor and pleasure to bring you the following the review of Camp Wanatachi: In Concert, written by Bekah Brunstetter and Natalie Elizabeth Weiss and written for the stage by Natalie Elizabeth Weiss herself. To begin, perhaps like me, you’re not sure what to expect from a musical that summarizes itself being about “sex, god, and summer camp.” Hell, if I had known summer camp was so much fun, maybe I would have asked my parents to send me! Regardless, allow me to start from the beginning, with the swanky, intimate table seating at the Green Room 42 that is nestled in Yotel on 570 Tenth Ave in New York City. You sit down to a view of a rather small stage in comparison to what you would expect near Broadway. However, it was adorned with decorated chairs, piano and music stands for the ensemble. “Is that going to be enough room?” you think. With the perfect mixture of music, lighting and cast, there is always plenty of space and in the case of Camp Wanatachi, there was.
The premise is also quite simple: one summer at camp with an unlikely group of gal pals and their counselor. The kicker? It’s a Jesus-For-Joy type of a summer camp where parents send their teens and pre-teens to be filled with the spirit rather than sexual urges and questions. We get a tiny glimpse of the five girls under the watchful eye of slightly older, perky counselor Corky (Sami Gayle), who we also find is as human as all teens at summer camp. With the Wanatachi Princess competition underway and a promise that “it’s worth the wait,” the summer seems to be off to a purely righteous and campy start for main protagonist Jana (Marissa O’Donnell). However, everyone’s world is turned upside down when newcomer Titi (Jillian Mueller) joins the tribe, clearly forced by her family to come to the soul-inspiring camp. She is a free spirit all right, but also filled with her own issues which are disguised by her confident, sexually-charged air. Each tribe member is affected by Titi differently, but Jana is at the most affected and a same-sex summer crush in Jesus camp complicates the simple straight and narrow of it all, as human nature and free will tend to do. Without spoiling everything, I can say that Camp Wanatachi’s story is definitely one of a coming of age as well as one of self discovery and truth.
Within the catchy music, creative scores and clever one-liners (like “Haunt it, then flaunt it” from adorable goth-girl, Daisy [Remy Zaken]) also lie darker themes covered in a way that only just scratches the surface. This isn’t to ignore the importance of the themes, but to raise awareness. You wonder why some parents send their children to religious camps for reasons other than religion. Titi clearly was forced, so more questions of her home life emerge – especially when she is sent home and exclaims that she would rather die than go home. This brings me to another theme: suicide. Two characters contemplate it briefly, which echoes past movies/works where LGBT+ characters consider it an option and unfortunately follow through. SPOILER: The two characters do not carry it out; they are brought back from the literal and figurative edge, which is absolutely amazing to see because suicide is something that needs to be discussed, not just “troped.” In Weiss’s work, you see the characters’ pain, understand it even, but you also see them brought back from it, a step surprisingly not often taken. I had the absolute pleasure to discuss that theme briefly with writer Natalie Elizabeth Weiss after the show, in which we shared a similar opinion of the unfortunate frequency of suicide with LGBT+ youth, as well as the hope given from programming/works in art (such as hers) that is created to take that important step back. Natalie, as a teacher of that age group AND a member of the LGBT+ community, thank you for the “realness” and hope shown.
With the darker themes covered; however, there is also the most absolutely beautiful of themes throughout the play. In the very beginning, Jana quotes from The Bible about there being no fear in love. Said quote is repeated during the play and perhaps throws the proverbial middle finger up at individuals who would say that love between two women or two men is a sin. It’s beautiful. It’s hope-inspiring. And it’s needed so desperately right now.
While the characters themselves are symbolic and so very complex, they would not have been as easily relatable if not for the “amazeballs” cast. Each person had not only amazing performances, but also vocals that were both diverse and reflective of their respective roles. Marissa O’Donnell as Jana gave the innocent, questioning and passionate performance while Jillian Mueller as Titi gave the free spirited and honest vulnerability. Sami Gayle as camp counselor Corky gave us the perky and vulnerable human side while only male cast member Travis Arts gave us Joel, the beautiful boy you end up despising rather than adoring. Although not mentioned by name, the rest of the tribe needs to be acknowledged as they each gave the show their own flair that would have been missed if not present.
Perhaps next to the clever writing, representation, and one-liners (“Dear white guy with a beard” — another favorite) would be the music of the show. From the cast and musical ensemble beatboxing to the ensemble using food utensils as percussion, the music seemed one of a kind like the show itself. A lot of shows have a larger ensemble; this one has seven including DJ/conductor Fernanda Douglas. Musically, Camp Wanatachi included beatboxing, percussion, classical instruments and synthesizers in an innovative and contemporary mixture. Everything just came together in a beautiful mural of what 2017 should be – a diverse balance (conducted by a woman who will no doubt continue to amaze audiences with her professionalism and skill).
Although the last performance during the NYMF 2017 was Tuesday night, if you do get a chance to see a performance take it! Camp Wanatachi is definitely one of the most uniquely put together works of art in theater that I have seen. Written by a woman, conducted by a woman and with a nearly all-female cast, it gives me hope and inspiration to see more women owning it in the arts lately, whereas musical theater and the arts were once all male dominated. (Nothing against you, William Shakespeare, but c’mon!) If you happen to miss the chance to see a performance, then I would suggest reading the book that inspired the play as I certainly plan on reading it. Lastly, if you’re a woman just starting out in the arts and are feeling discouraged, keep going. We’re making huge strides, and giving up is no longer an option (if it ever was). Remember: there is no fear in love.