In 2020, four friends – Jewish actors Molly Gordon, Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, and director Nick Lieberman – decided to get together and put on a show. But instead of just performing on stage, they made a short film. Then during a frenzied shoot of just 19 days last Summer at Kutz Camp, a former Union of Reform Judaism overnight camp in upstate New York, they made the feature film, Theater Camp (not to be confused with the documentary Theatre Camp).
Whether you’re a kid or adult who practices your jazz hands, knows all the songs in Gypsy, played Tevye in a junior production of Fiddler or have never watched a single musical, you’ll be charmed by this affectionate and funny take on the earnest, goofy and imaginative world of theatre.
Every summer, aspiring performers, crew, and camp staff spend cherished weeks together at the fictional AdirondACTS, run by founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), who is supposed to be the subject of a documentary crew filming her. But early in the movie, Joan has a seizure brought on during a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie that lands her in a coma. To the rescue are BFFs and campers-turned-counselors Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon).
Amos and Rebecca-Diane are devoted to each other and AdirondACTS, not entirely to their benefit as it’s meant she’s allowed both to sideline her acting dreams while Amos has given that up to focus solely on teaching the craft. Among the staffers is con artist Janet (Ayo Edeniri – largely wasted), who is teaching some version of martial arts, and arguably the most over the top instructor, Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), the camp choreographer. Joan’s dude-bro of a son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) thinks he too can help keep things running and is also on hand. The kids, wise to his poseur ways and cluelessness about musical theatre, ignore his calls to attention at breakfast but, in a moment that illustrates the insiders from the outsiders, Amos skillfully steps in with the call and response of “Oh what a beautiful morning” from Oklahoma and the campers join in.
The documentary crew turns their cameras instead on this ragtag band that hold auditions for several shows (Cats, Damn Yankees and The Crucible Jr.) that will be showcased at the conclusion of camp. But the main focus is the original musical co-written by Rebecca-Diane and Amos entitled, “Joan, Still” about Joan’s life and the how meaningful the camp has been to the hundreds of students over the years. Part of the fun of Theater Camp is watching the utter seriousness with which everyone takes the absurdity of kids who haven’t even been through puberty trying to capture the emotional gravitas of Joan’s conflict with her immigrant father and her drug-fueled days at Studio 54.
There’s trouble with a capital T with the discovery that the place is facing foreclosure and a potential takeover by the fancy camp across the lake where the kids have uniforms but no soul. Troy unwisely inserts himself into both until, of course, they all have to band together to put on a show to try to save AdirondACTS, minus the lead actress who’s booked a job. Thanks in no small part to Glenn (a hilarious Galvin – RIP The Real O’Neals!), the tech wunderkind, and then some, they do.
Theater Camp has more than a schmear of Jewishness to go with the hefty platter of high stakes dramatics. In addition to the real-life Jewish setting for filming and the Jewish leads (Gordon, Galvin, Lieberman and Platt co-wrote the script with Gordon and Lieberman sharing the directing), there are shout outs to shiva (one performer chooses camp over spending a week mourning a cousin), the previous summer’s production of A Hanukkah Divorce and Joan is from an Eastern European family of immigrants and is an émigré herself.
Not surprisingly, the movie has drawn comparisons to Wet Hot American Summer and the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest. For my tastes, those films have more cringe and less of the sweetness found here. Theater Camp speaks to “every kid picked last in gym”, as a lyric in the final production number so aptly captures the spirit of the kids and adults who thrive in the places where they find their people.