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'Theater Camp' review: Mockumentary offers perfect send-up of the arts

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures


Even if you’ve never been to a theater camp, that shouldn’t detour you from visiting “Theater Camp,” a breezy, hilarious mockumentary in the vein of “Waiting for Guffman.” Then again, if you’re a geek for the arts, “Theater Camp” will certainly fall right within your wheelhouse as it pokes fun at the entire process: from auditions to the panic frenzy that comes when a cast list gets posted. It also has a stirring message baked into its core about how the stage will always be a safe space for children to express themselves and make unforgettable memories. As someone who grew up a theater nerd, and, to this day, still is, “Theater Camp” offered a slew of hilarious triggers (in one of several laugh-out-loud moments, there’s a “drug deal” between campers, except, instead of drugs, it’s throat coat tea: “This better be genuine” one of them says). 

But the movie presents itself from the lens of those who don’t quite understand the intensity of uprising performers. It’s told from a behind-the-scenes perspective as a documentary crew follows the exploits of AdirondACTS, a financially unstable New York camp where, every summer, children from all over the tri-state area come to perform. Their teachers are a fun bunch, though most of them have tried and failed at making a name for themselves in the big leagues. They include Molly Gordon and Ben Platt’s Rebecca-Diana and Amos Klobuchar, the directors in charge of the season’s line-up (among them is “Cats: Immersive”), and they also write and direct an original piece that’s lauded as the camp’s “premier” production. 

The camp has been stuck in limbo after the founder, Joan Rubinisky, went into a coma while taking in a middle school performance of “Bye Bye Birdie,” and her less-than-bright son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro - channeling everything that made his performance in “American Vandal” memorable) has become the intermittent ringleader of the entire operation. He’s a vlogger who has many quick rich schemes though his understanding of theater can be summed in one interaction wherein he asks what are the differences between a straight play and a gay play? Watching Troy discover the mania of theater camp through an innocent, bystander capacity is quite humorous, especially as he fields questions about character development and casting decisions. 

The creative team of Nick Liberman, Platt, Gordon, and Noah Galvin, who turns in a stellar performance as the camp’s “third generation stage manager” Glenn, have been in this industry long enough to understand where the jokes should come from. They manage to showcase the film’s premise through various ad-libs and spunky running gags in part because of a great ensemble of young actors who roll with the punches and seem game for whatever is thrown at them.

Gordon and Platt are never afraid of getting in on the jokes either and the final act of the film, without question where the film hits its strongest stride, is a triumph about the beauty of community theater and folks coming together in harmony. The children really shine in these closing moments, as do the original songs written by the creative team that are too juicy to reveal here. The film might occasionally lag in comic consistency (with so many jokes being hurled, not all of them are going to stick) and emotional development, but never is it boring. If you love musical theater, this movie is for you. And if you hate musical theater, I’d argue it’s still for you. 

Grade: B+ 

THEATER CAMP opens nationwide Friday July 28th.


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