When I was in the sixth grade, I participated in my first school play. It was an inane “musical” called The Case of the Missing Part of Speech. I shit you not. The whole “show” lasts for about 30 minutes, involves the cast collectively singing ditties about nouns, verbs, and prepositions (our production actually cut one of the numbers because it was too fast-paced for the kids to memorize in just two weeks), and the story is presented as a mystery with a bungling detective and his trusty bloodhound. I played the talking dog, who somehow knew the solution all along, but can’t get the proper attention to point out the obvious. We did something like a dozen performances, for students (because the runtime fit inside a single class period) and parents, and even went on a brief “tour” of local elementary schools to do it for them.
It was such a dumb show, but it was fun. I had always wanted to try a play, and this was the first opportunity I had. A year later, my middle school musical was The Wiz, where I was just in the chorus (I didn’t really develop my singing voice until high school), but the various roles I had (Munchkin, Emerald City Citizen, Flying Monkey) were a blast. By pure coincidence, during the show-stopper, “A Brand New Day,” part of my choreography was to run up and dance in the aisles of the auditorium, and my mark was right where my family was sitting. My mom told me later that the look on my face was one she had never seen before, that of pure joy and euphoria, as if I had never been happier, doing what I always should have done.
From that point on I was a theater nerd. I went out for every play and musical I could throughout middle and high school (turning one role down on my parents’ orders because of the time commitment), my family and I took every opportunity we could to see live shows, I still have a few Broadway cast recordings in my CD collection (yes, I still have a CD collection), and one year I even volunteered to do a haunted hayride my town put on just so I could have another chance to perform. While I don’t do any kind of professional acting or singing now (I’ve done background a few times), the bug has always stayed with me. Being as big a fan of Inside Out as I am, I imagine those small childhood moments formed the core memory that created “Performing Island” in my head. It’s just expanded into things like fandom, my writing, and my work in game shows. Whether I’m actually on a stage or doing something more technical, those first days crawling around in a sweatsuit with dog ears on it informed an entire life and love of entertaining.
It is that unwavering affection for the arts that pervades every second of Theater Camp, directed by Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon, co-written by them as well as Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, and adapted from their 2020 short film of the same name. If you have ever been on stage, backstage, or just been really into a hobby, this film will be a delight without end, reminding you fondly of every great memory you have, while also making you burst laughing at each absurd turn.
Shot in a mockumentary style that evokes the best work of Christopher Guest, the film takes place at the low-budget “AdirondACTS” camp in upstate New York. Always struggling to make ends meet, the camp has endured for years under the leadership of Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris), who goes to great lengths to get people to sign up, but also ensures that the camp is a haven for young performers from every walk of life. However, during a school production of Bye Bye Birdie that features one of her star campers (Alexander Bello), she suffers a stroke and winds up in a coma. The show — and the summer — must go on, and so the administrative duties pass to her son, a self-aggrandizing “Crypto Bro” named Troy (Jimmy Tatro) who fancies himself an influencer. Suffice to say, his actual financial knowledge, as well as his general work ethic, is sorely lacking, making him an easy target for Caroline (Patti Harrison), an investment banker and owner of a rival camp for wealthy children who wishes to take their property.
All the business intrigue is firmly to the side of the main action, though, which is the four-week program at the camp itself. Children from all over the area gather, many of whom know each other from previous summers. The only newcomer is Devon (Donovan Colan), who for the first time in his life finds himself in the minority, as he’s a straight boy who’s just as into sports as he is the stage, and who auditions with a Post Malone track (only Troy enjoys it) rather than a showtune. Other notable campers include Luke Islam and Jack Sobolewski as two different Christophers, Alan Kim from Minari as an aspiring talent agent (also named Alan), and teenage Darla (Kyndra Sanchez), who is attempting to parlay her experience into actual paid acting work.
All of the kids have over-the-top personalities, which could come off as obnoxious and annoying were it not for the fact that they’re perfectly one-upped by the staff, led by Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt, looking much more his age than he did in the Dear Evan Hansen movie). The pair has been inseparable since they were first at the camp themselves, and Amos was once Rebecca-Diane’s crush until he came out to her. They work as a team, leading the acting and music departments, while also writing and composing an original show for the kids to perform, an annual tradition (past examples of which are predictably hysterical). The rest of the adults run the gamut of the entertainment industry. Dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) doles out the harshness in rehearsals as well as hard truths in candid moments. Costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele) learned how to focus his talents on a specialty when performing didn’t work out. New hire Janet (Ayo Edebiri), who literally lied on her application to get the job despite being the only candidate, epitomizes the idea of “fake it ’til you make it.” Finally, the eternally put-upon stage manager Glenn (Galvin) shows just how much yeoman’s work goes into the stage, pulling miracle after miracle to keep things afloat, including serving as a confidante for Troy and his money problems, while rising to every occasion to let his own skills shine through.
The opportunities for comedy are nearly limitless, and the film never fails to meet the moment, from hilarious vignettes like Rebecca-Diane playing a recorder and then asking her students to “sing” the melody back to her, to an ironically poignant fund-raising dinner that Troy sets up where the kids serve as wait staff but think it’s an audition rather than the most likely career path for them, to the scandalized looks on some of the campers’ faces when they see Devon throwing a football rather than joining them for “manifesting” exercises.
A lot of the humor comes from the intentional overly-dramatic performances, with many scenes having an improvisational tone. Like I said, this farce could stand alongside the likes of Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, or For Your Consideration with ease. And yes, there are a few bits that play off of tropes and stereotypes of theater people, but there’s always an emphasis that this is a safe space, with not an ounce of judgment in the execution, and to be frank, there’s factual basis for a lot of it, as this is a film made by the very people sending themselves up (there’s a really cute montage of home videos of the adult cast on stage as children).
For example, some of the kids have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway, and there’s some low-level teasing of those who don’t. That happened to me a few times. I didn’t have access to endless libraries of soundtracks and sheet music, going to a show was a once per year treat rather than a weekly routine, and honestly, there are some shows I simply don’t like that others swear by ( Chicago being chief among them). So yeah, there were a couple of incidences where I was playfully mocked for not knowing Cabaret front-to-back, but in the end, we always supported each other and worked together to put on the best show we could.
This is where the film earns its heart to go along with the rapid-fire laughs. More than anything else, the film (aided spectacularly by the mockumentary format), emphasizes the resourcefulness of stage kids. The main production is an original musical about Joan herself, a dramatization of her life story as tribute in case she doesn’t make it, especially with Troy’s fuckups making it very possible that this might be the last summer for the camp itself. Throughout the process, we see all the obstacles that have to be tackled, and the pressure that comes with it. Hearing Rebecca-Diane say matter-of-factly that this will be an amazing moment that breaks the children while Amos puts the onus on the show’s success squarely on their shoulders (and not, you know, he and Rebecca-Diane, who are creating it on the fly) is not only funny, but absolutely true to anyone’s experience who’s gone through this. These are people who, to quote one of the more memorable lines, “know how to turn carboard into gold,” which makes it all worthwhile. When it somehow all comes together in ways that border on magic, you feel the accomplishment deep within your soul, and it radiates outward for all the world to see.
In all sincerity, to further this point, my favorite character in this whole thing is Troy, because he initially dismissed theater in favor of his more douchey endeavors. However, he sees first-hand how the kids thrive in this environment, knowing they’ve been given the reins to create something spectacular, and that this is the one chance they have every year to have all eyes on them in a good way. He’s already a great contrast to the rest of the staff, who are all self-important narcissistic quasi-failures just like him, just in different spheres, but he also grows to understand just how much of an act he himself puts on for his own ambitions and priorities. As such, he learns to lean into the weirdness of it all and embrace a side of life he’s never really considered. It’s a standard character arc, but a) it flows in a completely organic manner because despite his flaws he still wants to help, b) the non-judgmental attitude of the film is still applied to him so that he never becomes a villain, and c) every moment is written and performed in such a deftly hilarious way that you can’t help but root for him. Seeing him DJ a mixer with the rival camp where he’s just as into the craziness as all of his charges is sneakily inspirational because their energy and love for the craft has drawn him in. To make another musical reference (but in a much more mundane context), he’s given himself over to absolute pleasure.
Maybe that’s what mom saw in me all those years ago when I was dressed as a monkey in a leather jacket with fake wings. I was just part of an ensemble, but for a few glorious seconds, I felt like the world was mine, and that anything was possible. That’s what we see in both the kids and the adults in this movie. It’s an absolute laugh riot (and it includes what should be the front-runner for next year’s Original Song Oscar), but that emotional core is what makes it all translate to the audience, whether they were theater kids or not.
It reminded me of one of the few true regrets I have in life, because in true stage spirit, you have to have a little tragedy to go with the comedy. In the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I did a summer day program (so not quite a camp) in my county. It took place the next town over, and having no other mode of transportation, I biked myself 45 minutes each way every day for a month to work with kids of all grade levels from half a dozen different districts on a revue where we all learned various songs, dance numbers, and other dramatic and comedic bits. Among the highlights for me was learning how to swing dance (I still remember the basic steps despite having no rhythm), lip-syncing the opening to “Be Our Guest” for a large group sequence, and getting my first musical solo (“Hello, Little Girl” from Into the Woods; gimme some Sondheim any day).
When it came time for the show, my parents asked if they should come see. Being an angsty teen, I was kind of offended that they would even ask. You’re parents, you show up. Anyway, I gave them an out, saying, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Turns out this was some dumb reverse-psychology test they were pulling to try to get me to be more assertive (despite my flair for the spotlight, I’m fairly introverted otherwise), because they wanted me to say, out loud, that I wanted them there, rather than treat it like the obligation it was. They dropped me off, but they didn’t stay because I didn’t demand it, and they missed it. I made sure they never missed another show after that. Mom knew how much I loved doing this, and she wanted me to seize my moments whenever they came. That’s what everyone involved with Theater Camp does. You never know what you’ll miss out on if you don’t.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Were you a theater nerd when you were growing up? What would you do if your waiters started spontaneously performing improv? Let me know! Also, don’t forget to follw me on Twitter and YouTube!