Adapted from a 2020 short film of the same name, the laugh-out-loud Theater Camp considers what Waiting for Guffman would look like if it attended Tairy Greene’s Acting Seminar for Children on Adult Swim.
This is the kind of intelligently rendered comedy that has loads of jokes for general audiences but is also filled with references to musicals and performance subculture that will make theater kids swoon.
True to the nature of the narrative, the film was conceived as a collective among a tight-knit group of stage players who have since made the leap to film and television. Co-directors and co-writers Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman have close ties to star and co-writer Ben Platt, the former an acting collaborator from a young age and the latter a frequent director of Platt’s music videos. Their camaraderie pays off big time here.
Theater Camp is largely set in AdirondACTS, a summer refuge in upstate New York for young thespians looking to hone their craft. The crew is preparing for a new season when their intrepid leader Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma after a strobe light during a rendition of Bye Bye Birdie triggers a seizure. Regrettably, the duties of running the camp fall to her hopelessly half-witted son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a would-be finance vlogger who wouldn’t know a foreclosure from a forearm.
It turns out actual fiduciary knowledge would come in handy since the camp is buried with back payments and capitalist firm representative Caroline (Patti Harrison) is waiting in the wings to buy the facility for pennies on the dollar. It’s up to veteran counselors Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt) to salvage the summer program and produce an original musical that will make the parents of the resident theater kids proud.
The almost overwhelmingly talented ensemble also includes quickly rising stars Noah Galvin and Ayo Edebiri, the latter of whom appears in three films currently in theaters with one more (Bottoms) due this month. Edebiri plays a hastily acquired replacement instructor who embellishes mask work and other esoteric theater techniques to disguise the fact that she doesn’t know what stage combat is, much less how to actually teach it. Her character Janet, along with Troy and first-time camp attendee Devon (Donovan Colan), underscore an intriguing subtext of the movie. All three being novices to the theater world makes them outcasts in this environment, even though they could be seen as the most “normal” characters in the film.
But, of course, Theater Camp isn’t a searing psychological investigation of in-group/out-group bias. It’s a comedy and one of the funniest of the year at that. Shot and edited in a mockumentary style, the film captures just the right moments from each character to let us in on their entire worldview with just a couple lines of dialogue. The actual storyline, which involves tropes like lopsided friendships and a scrappy underdog defying the odds to come out on top, isn’t anything new but doesn’t end up bogging down the end result. From the auditions to rehearsals to the final stage performances, there are small yet hysterical moments that immerse us in this weird world that musical geeks call home. Just the way that show tunes “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” were quoted through PA pronouncements had me in stitches.
Gordon and Lieberman also nail the tone in their direction, affectionately skewering this off-beat community with just the right amount of snark and wit. This warmth for the material also comes through effortlessly in the performances, particularly Platt as the head of drama (in more sense than one) at AdirondACTS. Given how much of a disaster the cinematic adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen was, it’s nice to see Platt in a role that is perfect for him to inhabit.
The movie is also a terrific showcase for Tatro, a standout from Netflix’s true-crime mockumentary American Vandal who plays an endearing moron about as well as any actor I can think of at the moment.
Whether you’ve never belted out a tune on stage before or you came into the world singing Sondheim, Theater Camp is certain to delight.
New movies coming this weekend
Coming to theaters is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a supernatural horror movie starring Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi depicting strange and horrifying events that befall a crew as they attempt to survive an ocean voyage from Transylvania to London.
Streaming on Netflix is Heart of Stone, an action thriller starring Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan about an intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency who races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Red, White & Royal Blue, a rom-com starring Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine about an altercation at a royal wedding between the son of the U.S. president and a British prince that gives way to a blossoming romance between the two.