It’s been more than a quarter century since Waiting for Guffman skewered the pretensions of theatrical types with more creative passion than talent. Theater Camp may not be as good as Christopher Guest’s masterpiece, but it is a worthy successor, one that adds a liberal dose of Wet Hot American Summer and a dash of Camp to the formula. If you’ve got a theater kid who’s constantly practicing their jazz hands or used to be one of those kids, this found-footage comedy is the place to be as it expands to Tarrant County multiplexes.
The movie takes place in an upstate New York musical-theater summer camp called Adirond-acts. The camp’s owner and driving force Joan (Amy Sedaris) has fallen into a coma from an accident, which leaves her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) to run the failing business while teachers Amos Klobuchar (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane with no last name (Molly Gordon) are casting the kids and directing them in simultaneous productions of Cats, Damn Yankees, The Crucible Jr., and an original musical about Joan that they’re also trying to write and compose in the three weeks that the camp runs.
The film is based on a 2020 short film written by co-director Nick Lieberman and his lead actors, which has apparently been taken offline. I’m disappointed that we don’t see the productions of those first three plays, but I think the cost of music rights may have come into play. The bigger issue is the presence of so many theatrical divas. The movie really needs someone who’s relatively normal to react to all these bohemian teachers to make the jokes stick. Troy could be that, but he’s an idiot who fancies himself a finance bro when he doesn’t know what the word “repossession” means. (He has to Google it.) Patti Harrison also shows up as a venture-capitalist villain who wants to get her hands on the camp’s land, but there isn’t enough of her, and she mostly interacts with Troy.
Better stuff comes from the specifics of theater kids and the people who deal with them, as Amos and Rebecca-Diane bust one girl who’s using mentholated eyeliner to help her cry on cue. “These are steroids for actors!” Amos shouts. At another point, he tells a young actor (Donovan Colan) to project the pain of fatherhood, and when the kid thespian points out that he’s 13, Amos fires back, “Did Julianne Moore actually have dementia?” The costume design teacher (Owen Thiele) critiques the outfit in an Italian Renaissance portrait: “I’m hating all of this except these vaginal sleeves.”
The set pieces fire at a decent rate, too, like when the kids act as waiters at a fundraising dinner for rich investors, and Troy tells them that it’s an immersive theater piece, so the investors are treated to mimed performances of Euripides between courses. The improvised lines come from lots of sources, including Nathan Lee Graham as the dance instructor and Ayo Edebiri as a new teacher who has no idea what she’s doing because she lied on her résumé to get the job. These are enough to keep the comedy afloat, and the onstage blow-up between Amos and Rebecca-Diane over her still-burning desire to perform gives the movie an unexpected shot of emotion.
The highlight of the film comes when the camp kids put on Joan, Still, the musical about Joan. Maybe it stretches belief that these teachers could write songs that are this good under these circumstances, but hearing them is better than sitting through bad musical numbers. The camp’s overworked tech guy Glenn (Noah Galvin) gets an unexpected turn in the spotlight, and it is too glorious to miss. (Besides being a Broadway veteran, Galvin is also a co-screenwriter, co-songwriter, and Platt’s husband in real life.) Last summer I lamented the demise of the documentary-style comedy, but between Brian and Charles and Theater Camp, the subgenre has twitched back to life. I couldn’t be happier. I could burst into song.
Starring Molly Gordon and Ben Platt. Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman. Written by Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt. Rated R.