February 8, 2023


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‘Theatre Camp’ review: A new and improved riff on the viral short film

4 min read

Set in a sleepy stage-training program for shy kids, where attendees receive intensive instruction from Broadway burnouts, “Theater Camp” is that rare parody that has audiences laughing from the opening scene to the credits roll. I’m talking about the 18-minute short film that Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt uploaded to YouTube a month or so into the pandemic, following a cult following among musical theater geeks and those who survived the comparative drama camp in upstate New York. . The feature version is the same, minus the laughter.

Truth be told, as many laughs as there are likely to be in this new “theater camp,” now almost all are packed into the last half-hour of an old-quick feature where co-directors Gordon and Lieberman hammer out the same jokes ad nauseam. The driving idea behind “Theater Camp” — which sold to Searchlight at the Sundance Film Festival for a high seven figures — is that it’s fun to watch a bunch of kids subjected to tough-love auditions and seriously inappropriate acting practices by incompetent adults. A pint-sized aspiring agent (Alan Kim, “Minary”) works the phone, canvassing his classmates. Another son (Donovan Colan) struggles to come out — straight — to his two fathers.

In 2008 (when queer indies still had a fighting chance at the box office), Focus Features shelled out $10 million for “Hamlet 2,” a scripted film starring Steve Coogan as a washed-up actor turned ambitious high school drama teacher who plays his students. wrote a Shakespeare-caliber sequel for There was excitement. Flash forward 15 years, and that idea seems baffling (“Hamlet 2” wasn’t all that original back then, following on the heels of “School of Rock” and “Razzle Dazzle”). Nowadays, 18 minutes is already the maximum such an idea can sustain.

From the opening scene, in which Adirond Acts Camp founder Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) suffers a strobe-induced seizure in a junior-high production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Theater Camp” seems to be trying too hard. Sedaris may have been a comedic legend, but he soon disappeared from film. “After a day of filming, the subject of our documentary was now in a coma,” explains an intertitle Yes, “our documentary.” Here we are in 2023, and people are still creating mock docs. It’s easy to see why, as the shaky handheld, haphazardly edited format helps disguise a thin script and lean budget.

To make it work, it helps Christopher guest-level improv talent, which contrasts with a mix of precocious young thespians and mature theater-camp alums throwing in absurd in-jokes about the character’s motivations, professional frustrations and perils. Union is the original ensemble featuring Platt and Gordon as co-dependent best friends Amos and Rebecca-Diane, who met at a failed Juilliard audition and have been amateur creative collaborators ever since; Jimmy Tatro as Joan’s son Troy, a tone-deaf social-media jock ill-prepared to run the camp in her absence; And Galvin as Glenn, an underrated jack-of-all-trades just waiting for his time to shine.

The cast may be made up mainly of kids, but the movie doesn’t feel like it was made for their demographic. Flamboyant gay costume designer Gigi (Owen Thiele) looks like she’s been watching too much “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Overly demanding dance instructor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham) tells the kids, “You need to know that only 3% of people make it. The rest of them end up in a mental facility or a go-go box in Hell’s Kitchen.” The actors aren’t unpleasant (post “Dear Evan Hansen,” Platt’s neuroses are central to his character), but they’re stuck in screechy self-parody mode as editor John Philpott’s fast-cutting style and James McAllister’s. The enervating score amplifies the sense of creative disorder.

While Sedaris’ character sits in a coma, Troy is tasked with finding a way to raise enough money to prevent the bank from repossessing the Adirond Acts – or worse, allowing ritzy rival Camp Lakeside (represented by Patti Harrison) to buy the property. . Troy is one of Airbnb’s cabins that kids rent out to raise some cash and host a local Rotary Club dinner — which comes across as an immersive theater experience to the naïve group. As the movie enters its first hour, it comes close to landing a laugh (well, and at that point “America’s Got Talent” discovery Luke Islam ends his audition). Mostly, the audience is stuck watching everyone try to be funny: checking out one-liners, singing off-key, panhandling for laughs. Running prank trips on their own shoelaces.

And then something amazing happens. After all, we’re told Amos and Rebecca-Diene are writing an original musical about their beloved mentor, “Still, Joan,” who’s in a coma (the title is a nod to the 2014 film that won Julianne Moore and the Oscar). Rebecca-Diene is confused for most of the movie, and the night before the big show, it’s revealed that she’s booked a gig on a cruise line—which any aspiring Broadway actor would recognize as a last resort, something less pathetic than teaching youth. THEATER However, after weeks of chaos, the moment of truth finally arrives … and “Still, Joan” is some kind of genius.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s big ending, but the creative team actually came up with a catchy, clever original song about the fictional Joan Rubinsky, a self-made immigrant who abandoned a successful Wall Street career. Dedicated her life to inspiring children to embrace their dramatic potential. And it works. Suddenly, after what feels like a runaway tornado, “Theatre Camp” takes place. Anyone who has ever participated in a competition or played as a child (and who hasn’t?) will recognize the feeling, as the entire team rises to the occasion and creates something they can be proud of. Was it worth all the headaches to get here? Maybe not, but at least it sends them home with a smile on their face.

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