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Theater Camp review: an exceedingly jolly stage-kid romp

From inappropriate language to surprisingly sensitive queer inclusivity, get your jazz hands ready for this sweet, show-stopping turn.

At the risk of cancelling myself, once upon a very different time, I played Aladdin villain Abanazar (later renamed Jafar by Disney) in a primary-school pantomime despite being alarmingly white. Thank goodness the only makeup applied to my face was eyeshadow and a fake moustache, but nevertheless, it’s a casting choice that (thankfully) would not pass the pub test these days.

I was reminded of this inappropriate ridiculousness while watching debut feature co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s outrageously hilarious drama kid mockumentary Theater Camp, which recently closed the Melbourne International Film Festival after debuting at Sundance, and hits Australian cinemas for its general release on 7 September.

An improv-laden hoot set in the here-and-now, this deliberately cringe-inducing satire lovingly lambasts the outré nature of this jazz-hands world that can feel as if it’s still trapped in occasionally beyond-the-pale amber, with casting not always as ideal as it should be, even now.

Expanded from the short of the same name, Theater Camp casts three-quarter EGOT awardee and twofold Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt as drama coach Amos, one half of a Broadway wannabe act languishing in an upstate New York summer theatre camp for kids, amusingly named the Adirond-acts. Gordon – who also penned the screenplay alongside Lieberman and her co-star Noah Galvin – depicts musical director Rebecca-Diane, Amos’ buddy and fellow aspiring actor.

There’s a gloriously not-OK moment when the pair watch one young girl try out a song sung by Fantine in Les Misérables. Amos’ useo of an outdated slur for a sex worker is the only reason Rebecca-Dianne picks him up; not because he’s just said that he really believes this tween in that role.

Wince-worthy

The wince-worthy jokes fly thick and fast like Wicked’s winged monkeys in a film that’s having way too much fun telling on itself. But as wicked as some of the barbs are, there’s never any sense that the creative team aren’t onside. That’s why it works on a genuinely emotional level too, as all the best satires do.

You might know Gordon pops best for her appearances on The Bear or the American re-do of Animal Kingdom, but like many of her cast mates, she’s trodden the off-Broadway boards too. She and Platt bring palpable passion to their increasingly at loggerheads camp coaches, capturing the complicated love of those who have slogged in the unemployed trenches and jumped at the slightest call-back, but who also harbour a barely restrained jealousy at the merest hint of the other achieving success first. For all its deceptively dumb jokes and silly sight gags, the smarts of their real-life creative partnership come through.

Theater Camp’s tight focus on this pair means that most of the other camp (in every sense of the word) leads are left waiting in the wings. And yet Zoolander and musical theatre star Nathan Lee Graham steals the spotlight every time his extravagant choreographer Clive appears, with the line delivery on ‘jiggle like jackals’ far funnier than it has any right to be.

Owen Thiele also glimmers as catty costumer Gigi, who will cut a kid for snitching on his piercing side hustle. Sadly Gordon’s The Bear co-star Ayo Edebiri can’t cut through as movement coordinator and stage combat trainer Janet. It’s not her fault; her promising plotline – she has faked her stage credentials – is undercooked.

Galvin, who inherited the onstage role of Evan Hansen from his fiancé Platt, puts in a beautifully judged turn as quiet achiever stagehand Glenn, and dog bless the ones happy to do the work so that others can shine.

Actual YouTube influencer-turned-actor Jimmy Tatro is also magnificent sending up that pathway as the sweet but a bit dim dudebro ‘en-Troy-preneur’. He’s haplessly out of his depth when stepping in for his out-of-action theatre-to-her-bones mum and Adirond-acts matriarch Joan (the marvellous Amy Sedaris, chewing up her cameo).

Galvin’s ‘straight’ man routine is never better than when Glenn has to explain the difference between a musical and a straight play to a surprisingly sensitive but slow to click Troy. Queerness is adorably omnipresent here, like a showtune stuck in your subconscious that makes you smile even as it refuses to quit it.

Busy cast

It’s a busy cast, so the child stars aren’t quite as centred as they could be either, though they’re uniformly top-notch. Major props to the singing chops of Bailee Bonick as that Fantine-channelling high-note belter. If you’ve ever had one foot anywhere near musical theatre, more of the non-stop inside jokes will land. But even if you’re coming in cold, Theater Camp will work for anyone who has ever felt like an understudy in any walk of life, anxiously waiting to be picked.

An exceedingly jolly romp full of exaggerated but recognisable characters, you can’t help but root for them even if they veer off stage and into wrongtown on occasion. And if the Aladdin confession up top means this review is the final curtain call for this frustrated child thespian, then at least I’m going down laughing at myself, which is Theater Camp’s big number, after all.

Theater Camp is in Australian cinemas from 7 September.