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Sundance: ‘Theater Camp’ debuts to standing ovation, takes second for cast after surprise musical performance

The Sundance Film Festival raised the curtain Theater Camp Saturday afternoon the world premiere of the feel-good mockumentary made by four best friends, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman.

The audience at Park City’s Eccles Theater gave the show a generous and heartfelt standing ovation, saving another for the surprise musical performance that followed the closing credits, a rarity for a festival screening. In the short musical tune, eight young actors performed a medley of tunes written for the film’s musical finale, titled Joan, still. When they had taken their final bow, the audience cheered and applauded as you would for a Broadway performance.

Theater Camp begins with a scene that defines the rest of the movie: the beloved founder of a run-down theater camp, played by Amy Sedaris, suffers an attack from a strobe light in a high school production of Bye bye little bird. As summer rolls around, kids come from all over to attend her camp in upstate New York, amusingly named AdirondACTS.

Her unwitting “crypto brother” son Troy, played by Jimmy Tatro, is tasked with keeping the theater haven afloat as he is forced to navigate the drama with the camp staff, played by Platt, Gordon, Galvin, Ayo Edebiri, Nathan Lee Graham and Owen Thiele as they put on a production in honor of Joan. Minari Escape Alan Kim also plays a scene-stealing role as a wannabe talent agent, and Patti Harrison plays a business developer with ulterior motives.

The film also features major producers from Gloria Sanchez Prods., Picturestart, and Topic Studios, including Will Ferrell, Jessica Elbaum, Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, and Platt. Theater Camp is one of the titles hitting the market, so today’s debut is likely to boost sales pitches thanks to the warm embrace of the audience.

Gordon and Lieberman teamed up to make their feature film debut for the film, and during the short Q&A that followed the premiere (and performance), she explained how that came about.

“It literally came out of us just wanting to make something with our friends. I met Ben when I was 3 years old. I am going to cry because this is very overwhelming. I had a crush on him, and he was so gay and didn’t like me,” she said to the big laugh of her lifelong best friend who happens to be engaged to Galvin now. “We always wanted to make something as a collective, and we’re so inspired by all these people just making things with their friends and bringing in a bigger community. We brought in Owen, Patty and Jimmy and all these great people and wanted to create a sandbox where they could really play their part and have agency and just have fun.

It’s based on their short film, and Lieberman said when they were pitching it in town, they said their vision was akin to 1993’s. The War Room, a documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “They were like, who cares? Disturbed. But we just wanted to do it in a more cinema vérité way and make it our own in that way,” Lieberman said, adding that the other source of inspiration was Christopher Guest’s iconic mockumentaries, such as Best in show, a mighty wind and Waiting for Guffman.

For this part, Tony Award-winning artist Platt chose the greatest “treat and surprise” of the experience. It “was how incredible the young actors were at improvising and bringing themselves to the movie and being totally comfortable in their own skin, which is what theater camp is all about. They really got the heart of the movie and I’m so glad they came and sang for you guys because that was like the greatest treat in the world.

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