THEATRE CAMP l Searchlight Pictures | 2023
Starring: Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison
Directed By: Nate Noggle
A summer with LA based Upstage Theatre Schools as they take 43 kids and a fully staged musical from start to finish in only three weeks.
SUNDANCE REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
Theater Camp is the perfect comedy for musical theater lovers, full of excellent performances, catchy musical numbers and numerous laugh out loud moments that will leave you uncontrollably laughing throughout the film.
For years, comedies have entertained audiences with tales about summer camp, whether it be band camp in the American Pie franchise or Camp Firewood in the Wet Hot American Summer series. These comedies have been focused on crude humour that always generated laughs, but Theater Camp is more than just a comedy, it is also a tribute to the passion of performing and live theater. It’s no surprise that Searchlight Pictures purchased this film at the Sundance Film Festival as it is a truly special film unlike anything I have ever seen for the arts community.
Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin and Nick Lieberman have turned their 2020 short film into a feature length film, inspired by their own time spent at theater camp growing up. The film follows a group of camp counselors trying to keep the magic of theater camp alive for the children as their fearless leader is absent, as her business influencer son attempts to manage the camp without any knowledge of the arts. At the center of the screenplay is a love of musicals and theater, evident from the numerous references to famous musicals, theater lingo, and performer stereotypes. We have the counselors back reliving their glory days despite being stuck both personally and professionally, unleashing both their best and worst upon the camp, your typical theater children with big dreams living in this idyllic world, all surrounded by the warm and welcoming embrace of the arts community. At the same time, the corporate run camp across the lake is trying to buy up the land on which the theater camp is run, which the son running the camp initially goes along with before he sees the importance of what his mother has created, representing the constant struggle that the arts community always faces.
The story is told in a mockumentary style, showing how life unfolds at the camp on a daily basis. It gives the film an organic perspective for the comedy to unfold during rehearsals or for relationships to naturally evolve without it feeling staged. To its credit, the film skips the one on one interviews segments with each character, allowing the story to naturally play out without any interruptions to the film’s pacing. Adding to this charm is the grainy and warm cinematography that looks like it’s shot on a hand held home camera at times, making the film feel like it was shot by one of the campers, bringing the film’s emphasis on artistic expression to life.
Being set at theater camp, the film has a good number of musical performances from the campers. We get glimpses of famous Broadway tunes during the audition sequence, and some original pieces during the rehearsal portion of the film. However the majority of the original songs are saved for the film’s final act for the big performance of the original musical written by Platt and Gordon’s characters. The songs, written by Platt, Gordon, Galvin and Lieberman are very good, playing off common motifs and stylings of Broadway musicals, generating some great laughs as they tell the life story of their camp’s founder Joan. We are treated to some truly hilarious songs, but it's the film’s final musical number which closes the camp production that is the best of the entire film. It’s a song capturing what theater camp means to all of the characters, in an incredibly inspirational group number that will tug on the heart strings and audiences will be humming long after the credits begin rolling.
Though, it is the film’s talented cast who shine throughout that bring the entire film to life. Platt and Gordon are excellent as the film’s main counselors Amos and Rebecca-Diane. Their real life friendship seeps into their characters, making their characters’ long friendship believable within seconds. The creative energy emanating off each of them wonderfully feeds the other’s performances, while Platt captures the insecurity and jealousy of Amos seamlessly as Rebecca-Diane begins to grow distant from him. Jimmy Tatro is the perfect fit for Troy, fumbling his way through running the theater camp with his bro-like mentality, who opposite the always hilarious Patti Harrison as Caroline, the ruthless business woman trying to buy the camp, make for a great comedic duo. Harrison herself has the perfect dry sense of humour to bring to her character and is a terrific comedic match for Tatro’s childlike personality.
The rest of the camp counselors played by Ayo Edebiri, Nathan Lee Graham Owen Thorpe are a lot of fun, each delivering some truly funny moments throughout the film. The child actors playing the campers are all incredibly talented with excellent singing voices, great dance moves, and just an energy that captures the excitement of young artists tapping into their abilities. But the standout of the film was Galvin as Glenn, the camp’s technical manager. Galvin starts off quiet, taking the brunt of the other counselors and campers, despite the talent you can see bubbling within him. His screen presence is captivating, creating one of the most likable characters of the film, all before he steals the final act of the film. In a blink of an eye, Galvin becomes a superstar with a magnetic performance that you can’t take your eyes off of! He dominates the musical numbers with his infectious personality, helping to bring to life the show stopping musical he, Platt, Gordon and Lieberman have created.
There is no doubt in my mind that this film is going to grow a cult following within the musical theater community. As a lover of live theater, I had the biggest grin on my face throughout the film while laughing at all of the theater centric jokes, such as the contraband used to induce crying and the black market for teas to conserve their voices. While Theater Camp is not going to win over all viewers as it’s written for a very specific audience, it is going to be an instant hit for any theater lover or someone who grew up within the arts community. Whether it be the outstanding cast, Noah Galvin’s scene stealing performance, the great humour or brilliant writing of Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin and Nick Lieberman that captures the undying love of the theater community and the many personalities within it, Theater Camp is a joyous celebration of theater and live performing that is destined to delight theater lovers!