Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Center Stage: THEATER CAMP

If Theater Camp doesn’t become a Drama Club classic, it’ll be another bad sign for the future of movies. It may not be an exemplar of the form, but its shaggy, underdog affection for its characters and milieu makes it all the more charming. I can’t image anyone who is now or has ever been a theater teen who’d be anything but charmed. As satire, it’s knowing, but very gentle. It comes on like a grainy mockumentary, setting up the eponymous locale as a financially strapped institution perched on the precipice of foreclosure. Its owner (Amy Sedaris in a whirlwind cameo) is in a coma, leaving the task of running the summer to her wannabe influencer son. (When told about the budget for “straight” plays, he earnestly asks what a “gay” play is. “Musicals,” the stage manager answers.) The staff is well-meaning, but silly at best and pretentious at worst. Honestly, their curriculum leaves a lot to be desired, too. But for all the above seems set up for mockery, the movie finds only sweetness. Everyone means well. Conflict is easily patched over. And even the unlikeliest participants will have their moment to shine.

The plot itself is developed sketchily, in scenes that play out as loose skits—goofy classes, camp complications, personality quirks. The adults get the bulk of the work, with the kids largely confined to reliable reaction shots. And despite starting their summer off with a long list of productions, the movie quickly focuses on just one. It narrows into a reliable old format—the let’s-put-on-a-show-and-save-our-beloved-space musical. Within that format, the movie finds an amiable, amusing approach that suits the affection it finds around every corner. It simply loves these ragtag theater kids and their teachers. There’s no interpersonal drama amid the campers, and the main problems the adults face are 1.) insufficient and/or misplaced confidence in their own talents, and 2.) outside financial problems from money minders who just don’t get artists’ goals. That doesn’t seem so difficult to overcome with some sparkles, jazz hands, original music, and a theatrical flair.

The loose, improvised feeling and communal spirit shine through the movie’s insistence that the show must go on. The fact that the main cast—Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin—are also the co-writers (and also, in Gordon’s case, co-director) is surely what gives the project its pleasant sense of hanging around. And in the end, when it leans entirely on the audience buying the transformative power of theater, well, the magic of the stage got to me, too. When one character lets his inner drag queen into the spotlight, and another bravely comes out as straight, as everyone takes the stage for a rousing group number celebrating their favorite summer spot, why, it’s almost like Theater Camp has room for everyone.

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