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Camp Nimrod for Girls

at Live Bait Theater

Girls and horses are such a well-known match that it's surprising no one has brought the phenomenon to musical theater before (though pop tributes include Adam Ant's "Why Do Girls Love Horses" and the lachrymose 70s ballad "Wildfire"). Is the equine attraction a way for girls to sublimate prepubescent sexual urges? Are they overcoming a sense of powerlessness by exerting control over a massive creature?

Martha Watterson covers all the possibilities in her "Horse gets girl, horse loses girl, horse gets girl back" musical Camp Nimrod for Girls, now in its sprightly world premiere at Live Bait. Watterson--who attended a riding camp named Nimrod in her youth--is a first-time playwright, and her book gets a strong assist from Mary Scruggs and Live Bait artistic director Sharon Evans. Scruggs also penned the often witty lyrics, while Robert Steel composed the pleasant if unassuming score.

Shy, awkward Jane is the new kid in the Catbird cabin, where the more experienced girls tell her that camp is about "learning to do practical things for when we grow up, like painting rocks and shellacking corn." Reeling from her parents' divorce, Jane is fresh bait for the bitchy trio who plan to do more with their summer than just arts and crafts, taunting her with visions of makeovers and make-out parties with the boys across the lake. But once Jane meets Butterscotch, she's torn between the brooding, sensitive horse and Randy, the big kahuna at the boys' camp.

What makes the show so beguiling is its sure-footed balance between the ludicrous and the sentimental. Just as Jane is getting run through the wringer about her "inappropriate" attachment to Butterscotch, the horse endures a chorus by his four-hooved friends warning him "don't get saddled with a dame." Michelle Dahlenburg as Jane is wide-eyed and cherubic without being saccharine, and she has a real chemistry with Matthew Holzfeind as the gentlemanly stallion, so magnetic that

it's not hard to understand why Jane prefers Butterscotch to the overbearing Randy, played with note-perfect petulance by Ryan Pfeiffer. Under the temporary thrall of Randy's testosterone-laden aura and the status his attentions bestow upon her, she tells the horse, "I want a boyfriend with two legs." He mournfully replies, "That's a low blow, Jane."

Though Camp Nimrod alludes to lots of previous plays and movies--from Equus to Grease and A Summer Place--it still feels fresh. Director Jay Paul Skelton treats Watterson's premise with respect yet brings out its humor. When the girls return from riding lessons talking about how strange they feel after a day in the saddle, he plays the scene for laughs but also captures their growing sense of how good it is to be "the girl who sets the pace." And I suspect that Scruggs, who coadapted Judy Blume's adolescent fiction six years ago in What Every Girl Should Know, deserves a big chunk of credit for the work's painfully funny, eerily accurate take on camp dating rituals. A boy-girl crawfish-eating contest helps establish who will pair off for fumbling trysts on "the hill"--and craftily symbolizes the vague fears of ickiness associated with early sexual forays.

Since Skelton's cast tends to be a bit green, it's not always clear whether the onstage awkwardness represents character choices or the performers' inexperience. But Holzfeind and the other three actors in horse mufti acquit themselves beautifully, aided by Tatjana Radisic's wonderful costumes, complete with realistic horsey headgear boasting big, soulful eyes. Sara C. Walsh and Adam Hummel score belly laughs as Margo and Phil, the odd kids out who might well be gay--they fake their make-out session and seem ecstatic at not having to actually kiss each other. Brian Sidney Bembridge's beat-up wooden set, with fragrant bales of hay covering the onstage piano, captures the close quarters of the cabin and stable with such lovely details as a torn screen door, and his lighting casts a firefly glow of possibility and longing over the show's romantic rendezvous.

Like Live Bait's delightfully offbeat summer romance last year, Sharon Evans's Blind Tasting, Camp Nimrod for Girls combines hopeful effervescence with a hint of autumnal wistfulness. At a time when most new musicals seem to be either bloated spectacles or tired pop-culture pastiches, it's refreshing to see someone take the camp out of the musical by sending the musical to camp. Nimrod could use a few more laps around the track to tighten up the book and add some variety to the songs, but this is one dark horse that has a shot.

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