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Sundance 2023 Review: Theater Camp – “Pure joy”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Did you ever go to theatre camp? Wait. Just to interrupt, know that as I’m Canadian I’ll be spelling theatre the ‘proper’ way for the rest of this review except when it pertains to the title of this film.  Oh, the foibles of the English language.  But, I digress.  Let’s start again.  Did you ever go to theatre camp?  If so, or if you even just found a place as a child where you could finally feel like yourself, then I have the film for you.

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Theater Camp is a mockumentary-style comedy that tells the story of a place called AdirondACTs.   It’s a bit of a rundown camp, especially when compared to the ‘rich’ camp next door, but it’s been around for a while, the routine and expectations are already set.  As the kids arrive, as many of them have each summer, they unpack their posters from the musical Waitress (nice choice!), set up their ring lights, and dust off their dance shoes.  It’s clear that these kids are performers.  And their summer experience will hinge on just what role they get in which production.

The most coveted parts are in the original musical typically written by camp teachers and best friends Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon). Past works included ‘Blackmail and Botox’ and ‘A Hanukkah Divorce.’  But this year, the musical is set to be entitled ‘Joan, Still’ named after the woman who founded the camp who is currently in a coma.  Her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) a vlogger and entrepreneur (or enTROYpreneur) is trying to keep things going while she’s in the hospital, but the AdirondACTS is in financial ruin.  To prevent it from foreclosing, the teachers must band together to try and save the beloved summer camp.

Theater Camp is crafted in the tradition of a Christopher Guest film.  Think Best in Show without the dogs but with characters just as eccentric and lovable.  There are a lot of familiar faces in this wonderful ensemble cast including Patti Harrison (Together, Together, a fantastic film from Sundance 2021), Ayo Edebiri (FX’s The Bear), award-winning theatre star Nathan Lee Graham (Zoolander), and Amy Sedaris (too many credits to count).  The cast of children here is also phenomenal, all terribly talented youngsters.  But, the absolute scene stealer is Noah Galvin, who most recently stars in TV’s The Good Doctor.  He also happened to take over for Ben Platt on Broadway after he departed the title role in Dear Evan Hansen, and all of his theatre experience certainly lends itself to this film and especially the finale.  He is simply incredible.

Under the direction of star Molly Gordon as well as Nick Lieberman, Theater Camp thrives.  Its humour is quick-witted and theatre-centric.  Where else will you see a tear-stick called doping for actors?  “Do you want to be the Lance Armstrong of theatre?” Rebecca asks with horror upon learning her young star has been leaning on this crutch to cry on stage.  The comedy here is sometimes a little ‘inside joke’ but it also means we are always laughing with the filmmakers, not attempting to laugh at their subjects.  With writing credits from Lieberman, Galvin, Gordon, and Platt, we know that they’re speaking from their own stories in the theatre environment.  This experience also translates into some pretty amazing original musical numbers as well, which makes for a pretty epic final act.

I’ve seen comments that Theater Camp would have worked better as a series, and certainly there are enough characters and stories here to explore in a longer format.  If that show ever exists, I will watch the hell out of it.  But, for now, we must make do with this completely delightful 94 minutes.  Yes, this film will certainly mean more to you if you know a bit about theatre, more of its jokes will land, more of its characters will be familiar.  And perhaps that is why it speaks so much to me (okay I didn’t go to theatre camp but I DID go to music camp and I’ll tell you, it was pretty similar!).  Hopefully, there is enough here to keep most audiences entertained, but for me, Theater Camp is pure joy and it’s one of just a few films of Sundance that I can’t wait to watch again.

Theater Camp premiered at Sundance on January 21st and its online second screening is available until January 30th for those in the U.S..  For more information please visit the festival website.

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