Rita Cohen (Caroline Aaron, TV’s ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’) and AdirondACTS founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) are in the full on throes of fundraising before the opening of Joan’s beloved theater camp when she becomes the first victim of a ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ strobe seizure. With Joan in a coma, AdirondACTS long term Drama head Amos Klobuchar (Ben Platt, "Dear Evan Hansen") and Musical Theory head Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, "Booksmart") decide that their annual climatic musical will be ‘Still, Joan’ if only Joan’s crypto-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, TV's 'Home Economics') figures out a way to keep foreclosure at bay in “Theater Camp.”
Laura's Review: B
Twenty years after an unknown Anna Kendrick broke out in the Stagedoor Manor-inspired Sundance hit, “Camp,” along comes a new take in the almost thirty year-old mockumentary genre kicked off by Christopher Guest with “Waiting for Guffman,” another comedy about theatrical amateurs gearing up to put on a show. Cowriter (with Noah Galvin, Ben Platt)/directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, who connected as kids at one of these camps, have spent years working on first their short, then this feature adaptation and the filmmakers both poke fun at the eccentrically committed staff and ground their film with emotional resonance and truly talented kids, winning the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the bargain.
As the clueless Troy tries and fails to get campers’ attention with obnoxious bro-speak, order is called instantly by Amos singing one line of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning.’ Troy, whose claim to fame is a crypto vlog, is in over his head with every aspect of the camp, attempting to save money by firing fringe specialty staff and replacing them all with Janet Walch (Ayo Edebiri, TV's 'The Bear'), a fraud who’s clearly lying through her teeth. As camp technical director Glenn Winthrop (Noah Galvin, "Booksmart") attempts to distract Troy from the come-ons of their rival camp’s financial advisor, Caroline Krauss (Patti Harrison, "Together Together"), Amos, Rebecca-Diane and dance instructor Clive DeWitt (Nathan Lee Graham, "Zoolander") fight over casting the best kids for their respective projects.
The film moves in fits and starts, snippets of kids rehearsing interwoven with longer dialogue scenes until it really settles into its groove with the mounting of ‘Still, Joan’ as a rift forms between long time allies Amos and Rebecca-Diane, who first fails to appear for her evening bedtime performance for campers, then at the mixer with their rival camp. While not all of the jokes land (the post credit titles should have been jettisoned entirely), many are priceless. Observing his students, Clive threatens with ‘Only 3% make it, the rest end up in mental institutions or a go-go box in Hell’s Kitchen.’ Meanwhile Janet tries to figure out what ‘stage combat’ is by asking her students for a definition only to be frustrated by their ‘poetic’ answers. Rita keeps having to throw pint-sized aspiring agent Alan Park (Minari’s Alan Kim) off the office phone.
After Rebecca-Diane’s disastrous reveal of the big finale number she’s ‘written,’ clearly concocted on the fly, and the play’s star Darla (Kyndra Sanchez) departing for a professional role, things seem dire, but a miracle of sorts occurs on premiere night, the finale transformed into something truly moving, Glenn stepping into his dreamed of lead performance and Troy triumphantly saving the day as duplicitous Krauss stews in her seat.
“Theater Camp’s ensemble also includes Owen Thiele (TV's 'Hacks') as fabulously manicured costumer Gigi Charbonier and talented kids like ‘And Just Like That...’s’ Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick, Luke Islam, Donovan Colan, Vivienne Sachs and the adorable Quinn Titcomb, all of whom are sure to have busy agents going forward. Tatro has a true breakout role here, navigating an arc from irritating bluster to earned admiration. But it is Platt’s self absorbed Amos and Gordon’s artsy-fartsy artiste and their complex codependency that props up “Theater Camp’s” Proscenium arch.
Robin's Review: B-
It is summer, once again, and the owners/counselors of the AdironACTS theatrical camp open their gates to a new generation of thespians and performers. When one owner, Joan (Amy Sedaris), falls into a coma, her clueless son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), must step up, with the camp’s dedicated crew, and save “Theater Camp.”
When I watched some bits from “Theater Camp,” my first thought was “Hoo, boy!” What I saw is a return to the YA summer camp movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s – movies I did not like – well, maybe “Meatballs (1979)” was OK. So, I did not have high expectations for the co-directing effort by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman.
What I got was a routine lets-put-on-a-show summer comedy that has its ups and downs. For one thing, the story is a cliché of the camp-in-jeopardy kitsch with the goal, early on, to save Theater Camp from foreclosure and sale to the rival, Camp Lakeside. Unfortunately, Troy is not the right man for the job, causing more problems with no idea what to do.
So, we have the looming danger of the camp closing, introduction to the various teachers and counselors and their individual specialties – mask class, stage combat, etc. Throughout the story, the various residents at the camp get to exercise their performance muscles, spawning a series of acts divyed up through the movie. Their performances are the best thing in the film.
The ambitious story, by the directors and Noah Galvin, is a pastiche of little dramas as the lead instructors, Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon doing triple duty), have their problems and conflicts – she wants to spread her creative wings away from him. Troy tries and fails at everything he does to save the camp, telegraphing early on his incompetence.
The various players have different levels of likability, with Troy on the bottom and the camp residents getting a chance to shine with their acts and performances. It is a throwback to another time in movies – but I am not sure that I want to return to that time.
Searchlight Pictures opened "Theater Camp" in select theaters on 7/14/23, expanding on 7/21/23. Click here for showtimes.