‘Theater Camp’: a pitch-perfect mockumentary for musical theater geeks

The climactic scene of the film includes an incredibly touching number.

Sometimes a movie may hit a little too close to the bone, and for the avid readers of DC Theater Arts — lovers, season subscribers, Fringe enthusiasts, cast members, and the creatives, crew, and staff of the 80-plus theaters across the DMV — Theater Camp is that film. The comedy brings lots of laughs, stages pitch-perfect parodies of musical theater, and also creates some truly touching moments without veering into the maudlin.

Kids on stage in ‘Theater Camp.’ Foreground: Molly Gordon as Rebecca-Diane and Ben Platt as Amos. Photo: Searchlight Pictures.

Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman in their directorial debuts, Theater Camp, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, further develops the 2020 short film of the same name written by Gordon, Lieberman, Ben Platt, and Noah Galvin. Shot mockumentary style, the film follows the teaching artists and their talented students at Camp AndirondACTS as they attempt to save their underdog theater from Camp Lakeside, the rival rich-kid camp encroaching into their territory.

On the one hand, this is the basic plotline of almost all comedic summer camp films — from Meatballs to Troop Beverly Hills, many including a climactic theater scene, such as Addams Family Values with its anarchic and homicidal Thanksgiving play and Wet Hot American Summer with its peppy drama teachers (Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper) staging a doomed talent show. It also recalls other musical rivalry comedies such as Pitch Perfect and High School Musical with more than a dash of Christopher Guest’s brilliant satire of community theater, Waiting for Guffman.

On the other hand, as this is lovingly written and directed by, starring, and created for musical theater geeks, Theater Camp is a Horatian satire — one of love bites without sharp teeth. There is no menace or meanness in the film, even as it gently lampoons musical theater lovers and creators — who comprise the cast.

Character actors and Tony winners such as Caroline Aaron, Ayo Edeberi, Nathan Lee Graham, Owen Theile, and the underutilized Amy Sedaris as the camp’s beloved founder Joan Rubinsky round out the adult cast as the camp’s intrepid counselors, while Patti Harrison steals scenes as the villainous Camp Lakeside financial advisor. YouTube comic Jimmy Tatro plays Troy Rubinsky, an insufferable business vlogger, tasked with keeping his mother’s camp afloat after she falls into a coma while watching a strobe-light-heavy middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie.

The film offers two Evan Hansens for the price of one with Ben Platt playing Amos, the Head of Drama, a perfectionist who still thinks of himself as a performer first and teacher somewhere much lower on his resumé, and Noah Galvin as Glenn, the do-it-all production manager, who is balancing four different productions across the campgrounds at the same time with a headset always on and his arms laden with props. Galvin shines as Glenn, who is the soul and conscience of the camp, knowing the history of all past productions and trying to counsel Troy to make the right decisions.

Molly Gordon as Rebecca-Diane, the Head of Music & Theory, is a flighty bohemian type. She leads young campers through past life therapy sessions and wears layers of diaphanous materials. She is, frankly, the quintessential music teacher we all loved and admired (and maybe sometimes gently mocked) in our past high school theater experiences.

Clockwise from top left: Noah Galvin as Glenn Winthrop; Jimmy Tatro as Troy Rubinsky and Ayo Edebiri as Janet Walch; Molly Gordon as Rebecca-Diane and Ben Platt as Amos; Rebecca-Diane and Amos with campers. Photos: Searchlight Pictures.

Together Rebecca-Diane and Amos, who attended camp together for 11 summers and have taught there for the following decade, are beautifully in sync as the co-writers of the camp’s annual world-premiere musical: Joan, Still (their previous shows include Blackmail & Botox, A Hanukkah Divorce, and The Briefcase, The Door & the Salad). The Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice of Camp AndirondACTS, Gordon and Platt have been lifelong friends from their early years as child actors in Los Angeles, and their chemistry together as co-dependent besties slowly pulling away from each other is bittersweet.

The stakes for the musical Joan, Still are much higher this year. With Joan unable to work her fundraising magic, her tech bro son focused on his side hustles (renting cabins as Airbnb properties and having campers serve as waitstaff for the local Rotary club), and Camp Lakeside wanting to demolish the camp to expand its outdoor spaces, the musical needs to pull the heartstrings and open the wallets of potential investors.

It is in these moments focused on the financial risks and strains of making theater that the comedy moves into the tragicomic mode (even if only briefly). We’ve all read the recent sobering stories of theaters shuttering after the pandemic, the dearth of butts-in-seats and declining season subscriptions, staff leaving their vocation for other positions with better financial compensation and work-life balance, and more. While the film doesn’t touch on that, the foreclosure threatening the future of the camp haunts Troy and advances his inept get-rich schemes.

The climactic scene of the film stages Joan, Still, the musical bio of the founder. Including Joan’s story as a young immigrant who couldn’t read (with allusions to Fiddler on the Roof), her Studio 54 decadence (youngsters disco-dancing while a papier-mâché nose huffs a line of coke created from white feather boas), and other surprising biographical details, the inappropriate musical also includes an incredibly touching number. Does the musical save the camp? You do know how magic works, right?

The film has many IYKYK moments sprinkled throughout for the pure enjoyment of theater lovers, and it’s a love letter to the kids of all ages who truly find themselves on stage and in tech. There is one shy boy who is torn between football and performance. In a recurring bit, another kid realizes he is not an actor but will excel as an agent; he’s always on the phone trying to cast the camp’s star performers. One camp counselor who padded her resumé and knows nothing about stage combat learns from the kids how to do her job, and a tech producer finds his latent true calling as a star. Camp AndirondACTS creates an inclusive space for all. It’s only those who do not get the theater — greedy money-grubbers — who find themselves left out.

That the end credits state “Dedicated to All Our Drama Teachers” is a testament to the power of exposing children to play and creativity and instilling a lifelong love of the arts and performance. Not all who study theater make it to Broadway, but many are the artists who grace local theater stages, run the lights, sew the costumes, create marketing campaigns, and do all the work that creates live theater. Some may move into different career paths altogether but still take their own children to local or touring productions of their favorite musicals. Some may support theater in other ways — volunteering, subscribing, or donating. And yes, some will become drama, music, and art teachers in schools, theater companies’ educational programs, community centers, and more.

The film reminds us that it is this whole community of theater lovers who are necessary for theater to thrive and that arts teachers — the first to be let go during times of financial crises in school districts across the nation, the ones overlooked by conservative school boards focused purely on the metrics of testing scores and state curriculum standards, the ones who are challenged at every step of the way by ignorant bigots for their inclusive brave spaces that welcome LGBTQIA+ students and other students who often feel ignored or exiled — are no laughing matter.

Searchlight Pictures’ Theater Camp is now playing at area movie theaters. PG-13. One hour and 32 minutes.


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