A pitch-perfect satire, celebrating the proudly insular world of musical theatre, mockumentary Theater Camp chronicles life at a kids’ performing arts retreat.
The film starts at the camp’s final performance of the season, and gives us the drama with an early narrative twist. As we follow camp founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), working the audience for donations, she suddenly becomes not the lead, but the background. Sitting down to enjoy a particularly jazzy, strobe-lighted performance, Joan is hospitalised by a seizure, which leaves her in a coma. Her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) is given the reins for the next summer intake. He soon finds out that the camp is in dire financial straits, and the land it sits on is being eyed by investors. Unfortunately for the camp, Troy is a TikTok “finance influencer”. By his own confession, he is “naked without his ring light”, and his business nous, when put to the test, is somewhat lacking. He also doesn’t have the showbiz bug: he has, up until now, shown little interest in the camp. Now on site and in charge, he struggles to make himself heard.
To be fair, Theater Camp is beset with wild, larger-than-life characters. Acting coaches Amos (Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) are former camp kids. After a failed audition for Juilliard, they return to become teachers. Mired in an abrasive, deeply co-dependent relationship, their teaching methods are unorthodox, more theory than based in actual time spent on stage. As the children audition for roles in this year’s selection of plays (all highly age-inappropriate; they include a Crucible Jr and an “immersive” Cats), Amos and Rebecca-Diane also have to write an original play to be performed on the last night. Inspiration strikes: the play will be a retrospective of Joan’s life.
Directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman expand on what started out as a short film, and Theater Camp becomes a riotous, joyous portrait of lives devoted to the arts. This is a film loaded with laughs, and the script from Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman keep ‘em coming. As well as the one-liners (a boy using a menthol tear stick is asked if he wants to be known as the “Lance Armstrong of acting”), there are multiple visual gags threaded throughout. Former Amos / Rebecca-Diane play titles appear on billboards and t-shirts. Every opportunity to poke fun at the whole business of show is gleefully taken. Supported by a cast of fantastic kids and great performances from stage-hand Glenn (Noah Galvin; Platt’s co-star in Evan Hansen) and Head of Wardrobe, Gigi Charbonier (Owen Thiele), the character types are broadly drawn but played with such warmth, that there’s never a false note.
For those of us who can divide our childhoods between ballet, tap and modern, Theater Camp absolutely plays it straight. The egos, the tantrums, the wardrobe malfunctions: the film is a bittersweet dose of nostalgia. But in-between Amos and Rebecca-Diane’s indecipherable acting notes, and Clive DeWitt (a fabulous Nathan Lee Graham) pouring scorn on the kids’ dance moves, the message at the film’s core – the importance of giving a space to the marginalised, the overlooked – feels more relevant than ever. It is in the quieter, less frenetic moments that Theater Camp delivers heart, and plenty of it. While the screenwriters are quick to point out the hypocrisy and nepotism rife in the industry, they refuse to be cynical about what an early immersion in the arts can do for a child. As the outrageously talented Christopher (Luke Islam) sings about being picked for the team, Theater Camp reveals its final hand. The stage show looks backwards (the Studio 54 montage is a highlight), but the film itself is resolutely in the present. Regardless of talent or potential, these moments we are watching have a value in themselves. As Theater Camp draws to a close, the film invites us – dare we say it – to stay in the moment.
Theater Camp is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema from Friday 15th – Thursday 21st September 2023.
Reviewed by Helen Tope