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Theatre kids are a strange breed. I know, because I was one. For a good chunk of my teen-age years, I spent Saturday nights listening to a radio program called “A Night on the Town,” which played Broadway show tunes and discussed productions. If someone had asked me why I was so obsessed, I wouldn’t have had a coherent answer. I just found the stage endlessly fascinating; it was a place where you could be anything and go anywhere. And when songs like Stephen Sondheim’s witheringly witty “The Little Things You Do Together,” from “Company,” or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s soul-stirring “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” came across the airwaves, the experience became transcendent.
The teens in the film “Theater Camp”—which was released in cinemas in July and is still playing in select theatres, and has just begun streaming on Hulu—are similarly entranced. They love theatre so much, in fact, that they spend their summer at a camp called AdirondACTS, where they take classes in acting, dance, and stage design. Its founder is the beloved Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris, with chutzpah), whom we meet alongside the camp’s manager, Rita Cohen (Caroline Aaron), as they trawl a middle-school production of “Bye Bye Birdie” for talent like a pair of football scouts. (They’re introduced with title cards, part of a mockumentary device that frames the film.) A strobe light in the show gives Joan a seizure, putting her in the hospital and largely out of the picture.
Joan’s hospitalization places her son, the aspiring entrepreneur Troy (Jimmy Tatro, known for his YouTube channel), suddenly in charge of the camp. He brings a gung-ho finance-bro spirit to his newfound executive responsibilities. AdirondACTS is thousands of dollars in the red; in an effort to balance the books, Troy lays off several longtime instructors and replaces them with one spectacularly underqualified newbie, Janet (Ayo Edebiri), whose bullshit he’s too out of his depth to pick up on.
Among the movie’s chief delights is watching Troy break out of business-school mode as he gets to know the people at the camp and learn their language. When the resident stage tech, Glenn (Noah Galvin), announces that they’ll have to prioritize musicals over straight plays, Troy asks what a straight play is. “There are musicals, and then there are straight plays,” Glenn explains. “So then what would be a gay play?” Troy asks. In the hands of a lesser actor, Troy’s dudeness might become grating, but Tatro layers him with a range of emotions: woundedness, when a drama teacher tells him that he doesn’t belong at the camp; guilt, after his stung ego drives him to rash action; beaming pride, when he shows that maybe he belongs at the camp after all.
The film’s other protagonists also seem like familiar types at first but gradually reveal inner complexity. The warm, spiritually inclined music director, Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), offers her energy-healing talents to Janet, whose vibes are, she intuits, “so chaotic.” Presiding over the camp’s programming with Rebecca-Diane is Amos (Ben Platt), the acting teacher, who happens to be her childhood crush turned gay best friend. They met when they themselves were AdirondACTS campers; since becoming counsellors, they’ve been in charge, every year, of writing and directing a musical that serves as the camp’s flagship production. (This summer, it’s a tribute to the comatose Joan.) If Rebecca-Diane is slightly woo-woo, Amos is a bit of a diva, though next to the grandiosity of the dance teacher (Nathan Lee Graham, living for the part, darling) and the cattiness of the costume instructor (Owen Thiele), he’s the Marlboro man. Glenn, the techie, is all stammers and self-effacement—until Troy, in the course of his own maturation, spots something deeper.
Galvin, Gordon, and Platt’s connection to the movie—and to one another—goes far beyond their roles. The three of them wrote the screenplay, and Gordon co-directed with Nick Lieberman. The friendship that Rebecca-Diane and Amos share resembles Gordon and Platt’s real-life bond, at least in its origins; the two met as kids in a theatre program. And Galvin, who succeeded Platt as the lead in the Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” is now his fiancé. “Theater Camp” has been a long-term passion project for the three of them, originating as a short released in 2020, struggling for years to find funding, and finally getting picked up for wide release by Searchlight Pictures at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The love that Gordon, Galvin, and Platt have for their material shines through in both the good-naturedness and the scope of the film’s humor. “Theater Camp” has a joke-book feel, poking fun at its subject from various angles: a young thespian is shamed for shortcutting her way to crying onstage via a tear stick (“doping for actors”); one of the instructors sets expectations for any of his adolescent students who might be considering a performing-arts career. “You need to know that only three per cent of people make it,” he tells them. “The rest end up in a mental facility or on a go-go box in Hell’s Kitchen.”
There’s no lack of wit, but in some cases there’s a shortage of character development. Take Graham’s dance teacher—he’s played with panache, but viewers never find out what’s behind his lofty affect or get to see him grow. The character of Glenn is an even bigger missed opportunity. With Troy’s help, he emerges, last-minute, from behind the scenes to fill in as Joan in the camp’s original musical, showcasing a level of talent that wows even the tough-to-impress Amos. Yet we’re left wondering: Has Glenn simply been hiding his immense talent? Or is his performance indicative of something deeper and more complex, perhaps a different gender identity?
Glenn’s star turn is, perhaps, an homage to the 2003 cult classic “Camp,” another movie about a summer program for young performers. There, Anna Kendrick’s Fritzi transforms from a quiet lackey into a hellcat prima donna whose glass-shattering rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” would have Elaine Stritch cowering under the table. But the force of Fritzi’s turnabout comes largely from seeing her being bullied into it throughout the movie; Glenn’s inner diva is glimpsed only once before his breakout moment, so the breakout comes off more like a stunt than like the completion of a character arc.
What does land, however, is the film’s depiction of a clash between the arts, embodied by the campers and counsellors for whom theatre is a way of life, and commerce, as incarnated by a financial consultant, Caroline Krauss (Patti Harrison), whose firm wants to take over the camp. Her company has already gobbled up Lakeside, a nearby retreat for rich kids. With the business-minded Troy in charge of AdirondACTS, Caroline senses an opportunity, young people’s hopes and dreams be damned. As the theatre types are lovingly satirized, Caroline is thoroughly demonized as a scorched-earth corporate vixen. Taking her seriously is impossible, but the threat she represents is genuine. Every arts enterprise, whether a youth camp or a professional performance venue, has to balance fidelity to its mission with financial necessity. And sometimes—as demonstrated, for example, by the “rebranding” of Broadway’s Selwyn Theatre as the American Airlines Theatre—that means trade-offs.
Spoiler alert: AdirondACTS ultimately survives, thanks to a surprise donation from a wealthy audience member. This lucky intervention is presented as a triumph, an example of art’s power to touch people. But it also highlights the dependence of theatres and other arts institutions on affluent patrons. The camp may have squeaked by this summer, but what about next year? Then again, maybe this element of struggle—faced not just by the movie’s characters but also by its creators, in their yearslong search for funding—is part of what it means to dedicate oneself to theatre. No sane person goes into the arts for money; they’re driven by something akin to what kept me listening to “A Night on the Town” all those years. “Theater Camp” is a celebration of that idealistic artistic spirit; it may miss a few cues, but it’s never lacking for heart. ♦