Long before Margot Robbie became Barbie or Cillian Murphy became Oppenheimer, when she was a little girl in Australia, and he was a little boy in Ireland, the two most talked about actors on the planet today shared a simple dream: to perform.
And while the two stars’ latest cinematic creations fight it out for global box office domination, a slightly lesser-scale production is being released that celebrates that dream meaningfully and magically.
Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, Theater Camp tells the story of a rundown camp in upstate New York, where every summer, kids with a passion for all things theatrical gather to learn their craft from a group of talented, if not professionally successful, counselors. As the story opens, one of the camp’s founders, Joan (Amy Sedaris), is in a coma (thanks to a hilarious theater injury), and her clueless Social media obsessed son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), steps in to help run things.
What follows is an immersive movie experience that has nothing to do with pink dream houses or atomic explosions. Gordon and Lieberman, who co-wrote the script with Noah Galvin, bring you backstage to see what it takes to put on a show and learn how the creative process fuels everybody at the camp, campers and counselors alike, except for Troy, who is much more focused on using his questionable Social Media Skills to make money from the center.
Drama teacher Amos Klobuchar (Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect) and Music Theory teacher Rebecca-Diane (Gordon, The Bear) are the two tent poles of the story, both for their interactions with the young actors and their complicated relationship. Along with helping the kids mount productions of Damn Yankees, The Crucible (jr), and an immersive presentation of Cats, Amos and Rebecca-Diane plan to mount an original musical about Joan and her coma. It’s a lot, primarily since they haven’t written a note of their musical, but Platt and Gordon nail it, giving Theater Camp lots of laughs and heart.
Amos and Rebecca-Diane are not the only ones with drama, talent, and a story to tell in Theater Camp, and the directors do a great job of ensuring every character gets a chance to step into the spotlight. Tatro takes being nonplussed to a new level as Troy, taking a role many would overplay for laughs and reigning it in for more significant comic effect. Nathan Lee Grant and Owen Thiele enthusiastically camp it up as the dance and costume counselors, and Noah Galvin steals the show as the tech guru whose hidden talents may save the day.
While the adults are good in Theater Camp, the students steal the show. Each gets their moment in front of the camera and doesn’t waste their opportunity to show audiences what they can do. One could only wish that Gordon and Lieberman took the time (or had the budget) to flesh out their characters with a little more backstory to give viewers a better sense of the drive it took to get them to the level where they perform.
There have been other outstanding films about the amateur theatrical experience, like Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Todd Graff’s Camp (2003). Still, while Guest focused on satire and Graff on teen angst/hormones, Theater Camp finds a theme by staying primarily focused on the fun and frustration of putting on a show.