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Theater Camp

You don’t need to know your Wicked from your Waitress or your Lerner from your Loewe to enjoy the earnest humor of “Theater Camp”—but it helps.

The mockumentary is by, for, and about hardcore theater nerds, but there’s enough infectious, let’s-put-on-a-show energy to entertain casual fans—for a while, anyway. Because for all the zippy audition montages and clever turns of phrase that propel the first act, “Theater Camp” eventually drags in the midsection before picking back up again for the big finale. It’s based on a 2020 short that directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman made with their co-writers Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, and you can feel the strain of stretching this concept to feature length. Eventually, the movie abandons the fake documentary structure altogether, which makes it seem unnecessary in the first place.

The filmmakers’ affection for the material, this setting, and each other is evident; they’re all close friends who’ve grown up and worked together for years. That footage at the beginning of the movie of cute kids performing on stage? That’s Gordon and Platt, long before TV’s “The Bear” and the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” would make them famous, respectively. Galvin also starred in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway and is engaged to Platt. Gordon and Galvin both had key supporting roles in Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.” Lieberman, the only one of the four who does not also appear on screen, has been friends with Platt since high school and directed several of his music videos. It’s clear how much they love this world of hammy, misfit kids who thrive within their tribe in this bucolic location, hours outside New York because they lived it themselves. But the execution doesn’t always match the power of their emotions.

“Theater Camp” begins promisingly with Platt and Gordon co-starring as Amos and Rebecca-Diane, former campers with dreams of stardom who now return annually as counselors. AdirondACTS (a funny idea in itself) is a ramshackle cluster of cabins that’s seen better days but still bursts with youthful glee each summer. This year, though, acting coach Amos and music teacher Rebecca-Diane must run the whole operation, as founder Joan (Amy Sedaris in a frustratingly brief appearance) has suffered a “Bye Bye Birdie”-related seizure and is in a coma. Joan’s wannabe finance bro son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), shows up and tries to impose his will, but the precocious theater kids immediately see through his inauthenticity and reject him.  

The show must go on, though, which is extremely amusing for a while but grows inconsistently so. Some of the kids are insanely talented—particularly Bailee Bonick, Luke Islam, and Alexander Bello—and it would have been nice to get to know them a bit beyond watching them belt out a show tune or emote with a depth beyond their years. They’re actually way more interesting than the adult characters, except for Galvin’s Glenn, the beleaguered technical whiz with a secret. A bit involving young “Minari” star Alan Kim as a would-be agent who wears suits and makes phone calls all day is emblematic of both the humor and shortcomings of “Theater Camp.” It’s intriguingly specific but also woefully underdeveloped. This is also true of the presence of Ayo Edebiri, who’s so excellent alongside Gordon on “The Bear”: Her character is here under dubious circumstances that the movie doesn’t explore nearly enough.

Beneath the percolating excitement of preparing the original, season-ending musical—a tribute to AdirondACTS’ founder, titled Joan, Still—there is the underlying threat that the camp is on the verge of foreclosure, with the neighboring rich kids’ camp looking to expand onto their land. That could have lent itself to a kind of brash, ‘80s-style class warfare comedy that never materializes.

The problem here is that we’ve seen so much of what “Theater Camp” is doing and seen it done better, from the loving send-up of self-serious theater people in “Waiting for Guffman” to the blissful insularity of “Wet Hot American Summer.” Plus, Todd Graff wrote and directed a 2003 indie similar to this—“Camp”—featuring a young Anna Kendrick and Robin DeJesus.

Still, there are enough scattered moments here that result in big laughs. The lyrics to some of the original songs are hilariously terrible. An exercise exploring the children’s past lives is wonderfully bizarre. And some of the intense advice the counselors give these eager youngsters is thoroughly inappropriate. You may not walk out humming the tunes, but you’ll leave with a smile.

Now playing in theaters. 

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Theater Camp (2023)

Rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive drug/references.

93 minutes

Cast

Molly Gordon as Rebecca-Diane

Ben Platt as Amos Klobuchar

Jimmy Tatro as Troy Rubinsky

Noah Galvin as Glenn Winthrop

Patti Harrison as Caroline Krauss

Ayo Edebiri as Janet Walch

Caroline Aaron as Rita Cohen

Amy Sedaris as Joan Rubinsky

Nathan Lee Graham as Clive DeWitt

Owen Thiele as Gigi Charbonier

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

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Composer

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