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Singing, dancing means happy campers in 'Theater Geek'

THEATER GEEK: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor, the Famous Performing Arts Camp, by Mickey Rapkin. Free Press, 220 pp. $25.

The temptation is to fill this entire space with lists of the famous alumni (or the unknown alumni with famous parents) from Stagedoor Manor, the theater summer camp in the Catskills.

In 1976, Robert Downey Jr. was Mr. Dussel in the attic in "The Diary of Anne Frank." The next year, campers watched Jennifer Jason Leigh limping through the cafeteria in preparation for her Laura in "The Glass Menagerie." Natalie Portman was Sally Bowles in a 1995 "Cabaret," and, in 2000, a teen named Lea Michele had to leave camp early to do a workshop of a little show called "Spring Awakening."

(Michele, now an Emmy-nominated star of "Glee," never was picked for a lead role at camp.)

You see? As Second City has been to post-adolescent comedy, Stagedoor Manor has been a seedling ground for the future thespians of America.

But as Rapkin breezily recounts in "Theater Geek," the summer camp in the Catskills has also been an oasis, a hoot and an escape - "Oz, Neverland, Hogwarts" for any arts-loving youngster who, "for whatever reason, feels other than." Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ and self-described theater geek, lined the walls of his bedroom wall with Playbills in his childhood in Bellmore. And, though he had friends, there were "almost none I could talk to about crying at 'Les Miserables.' "

In other words, he is an ideal guide through the mystique, missteps and mischief at a theater-obsessed boot camp where, as Zach Braff's father used to say, "You don't need to bring a mitt." Last summer, Rapkin spent three weeks at the summer stock for kids, created in 1975 in the foreclosed Karmel Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y.

In that brief time, campers aged 10 to 18 put on 13 musicals - including a six-show Stephen Sondheim festival. As Rapkin (sort of) jokes, the camp's motto is "Learn by doing grown-up (and, some may say), age-inappropriate material." He follows three talented seniors in their final roles before being cast out into the extreme vagaries of college and career.

Rapkin also traces the parallels between camp and the outside world - the sex and drugs in the '70s, gay liberation in the '80s and, in the '90s, talent scouts and boldface parents upping the tension and the glitz. As Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron) remembers, it was "a camp of little grown-ups terrorizing each other. And it was fantastic."

Rapkin worries about the future, as "American Idol" strengthens "its death grip on pop culture, teaching kids that fame and fortune were not just imminent, but somehow owed to them." Despite the concern, the spirit of the book lies more in alum Mandy Moore saying, wistfully, "I wish they had Stagedoor for adults." Hey, who doesn't?

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