Review by Sam Waite
If I had a nickel for every former Evan Hansen who co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in Searchlight Pictures’ Theater Camp… I’d have two nickels, and you know the rest. Real life fiancés (opposites don’t always attract, folks!) Ben Platt and Noah Galvin appear alongside co-writer Molly Gordon, who also co-directs alongside the final screenwriter, Nick Lieberman. I know I’ve said “co” a lot already, but the scrappy, by the theatre kids, for the theatre kids spirit is a massive part of Theater Camp’s innate charm.
Less insular and less kid-focused that its most immediate comparison, Todd Graff’s 2003 film Camp, this film proves to be immediately accessible while still drawing knowing laughter from those immersed in the world of theatre. Joan, beloved founder of the fictional AdirondACTS, falls into a strobe lighting induced coma (the county’s first ever Bye Bye Birdie-related injury, we are told) early in the production of a documentary about the camp, whose creators decide to move ahead with the camp’s first summer without her guidance.
This framing device allows for a charming mockumentary style, which Gordon and Lieberman utilise to great effect with the handful of plot threads – there are secrets being kept amongst the Adirond staff, but the audience are clued into all but one pivotal twist. Shots are framed, and performances are guided, so that we aren’t being told who to trust and how to react, but we see enough of the emotion in each moment that we feel informed about where each character stands in any given scene. Under their hands, the cast are allowed their eccentricities and quirks, but never feel any less than human.
As Joan’s hapless son, would-be business influencer Troy, Jimmy Tatro brings a groaning foolishness to the role, while managing from the outset to be likeable and to sell that Troy is less a negative influence, and more a misguided, ill-informed one. Tatro’s winning, compelling performance also offers a foil to the eccentric staff Troy has newly taken charge of – Owen Thiele and Nathan Lee Graham’s intense personalities as flamboyant and fabulous teachers are even funnier when paired with Troy’s constant confusion at the world which he’s spent decades avoiding. Interestingly, he has little interaction with scene-stealer Ayo Edibiri, who brings a chaotic energy and sense of constant anxiety to her role as Troy’s new hire, whose resume is entirely falsified but who now finds herself teaching everything from mask work to stage combat.
Despite the number of screenwriters (four writers isn’t uncommon, but all of them receiving credit on the final draft is) the script never feels cluttered or too busy, and the sense is that each of the writer-performers provided the bulk of their own arc, with Lieberman’s more experienced hand reigning in and uniting the many ideas at play. The collaborative nature of the production has allowed a singular voice to shine through despite the (at least) four thrown into the mix. Theater Camp comes in at a breezy 94 minutes, and everyone has enough time to charm the audience, make them laugh, and earn their sympathy and approval before the summer, and the cinema visit, comes to an end.
Platt and Gordon play the two most intertwined roles – Rebecca-Diane and Amos are lifelong besties, burgeoning performers, and have been teaching together at Adirond for the past decade. As long-buried tensions between the pair threaten to bubble to the surface during the creation of Joan, Still, an original piece in tribute to their fallen leader, Platt and Gordon bring enough levity to their comic moments and real, deep-seated emotion to their disputes that neither comes across as fully right or wrong. These are two talented actors bringing to life two fully formed characters, whose flaws don’t make them dislikeable, and whose finer points don’t erase their sins.
The writing team, along with Mark Sonnenblick, also provided a handful of original songs as part of Joan, Still. Melodically solid but not really intended for regular listening, they are mostly loving nods to theatrical tropes and familiar sounds – a rousing anthem for the role of Old Joan almost brings a tear, until you remember the absurdity leading up to it. Choreographed by Maud Arnold, the ensemble of child performers playing campers do wonderfully with the material, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few of these kids popping up on stage sooner rather than later.
In the standout performance of the film, Noah Galvin has a great deal of fun while also utilising the believable anxiety and awkwardness that got him cast in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. Glenn is introduced as a “third generation” stage manager, who quickly becomes a confidante for Troy, who trusts him to keep it under his hat that AdirondACTS is low on funds and soon to be foreclosed on. Despite working and teaching technical theatre, Glenn has a clear love and skill for performing, which pays off to beautiful effect when he is finally given the opportunity to utilise his many skills. With a stellar voice and emotional depth to his acting, Galvin is a star on the rise who deserves success to rival that of his soon-to-be husband.
A loving tribute to arts education and those who work in the field, as well as an opportunity for a talented cast to lean into and make fun of their existing careers and their own histories as teen outcasts, Theater Camp hits a lot of familiar notes, but it’s hard to care when they’re so well-tuned. Celebrating the arts for their ability to move and resonate with an audience, and managing to be funny to both neophytes and tried-and-tested theatre aficionados, this is a must-see for the stagey set, and a should-still-see for anyone looking for a funny, fun-loving film.
Theater Camp opens in UK cinemas on August 25th.
Watch the film’s trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puVDIUk0kM8
All images are the property of Searchlight Entertainment