The 124th Annual Varsity Show: Please, Get Those Actors Out Of This Play
Written by Riva Weinstein
This Friday, Bwog staffers attended the 124th Annual Varsity Show, a student-written and directed musical about life at Columbia. The verdict: a talented cast bogged down by mediocre writing and a lack of specificity.
If Alma Mater came to life one day, stretched her iron legs and dusted off her crown, turned her metal eye on the parade of students down College Walk—what would she say? Would she be proud of this generation of Columbians? Would she understand our struggles? What would she do if an over-ambitious CCSC campaign promise led to massive embezzlement and a campus-wide power outage?
Luckily, this year’s Varsity Show, Lights Out on Broadway, is here to tell us. The play revolves around two candidates in a neck-and-neck race for CCSC president: Chelsea Shaw (Genevieve Joers, CC ’20), a hyper-competent, aspiring law student; and William Schermerhorn VIII (Talmage Wise, CC ’18), who wants to live up to his ancestors’ legacy by creating some name recognition. With the correct pronunciation.
To Chelsea’s dismay, William wins the election by promising an unlimited budget for all clubs. In order to fulfil his promise, William steals the key to the “Columbia vault” from his trustee uncle and embezzles massive amounts of money. Clubs are overjoyed, but the lack of budget leads to housing cutbacks. The dorms’ power goes out during reading week. Finally, Chelsea and her friends uncover William’s crime and successfully impeach him. Chelsea, for some reason, becomes president.
Stepping in throughout the show to offer commentary on the election is Alma Mater (played by Rachel Greenfeld, BC ’19) and her owl (played confusingly by a number of different actors). Though a clever idea performed well by the charismatic Greenfeld, the Alma-owl duo were unsuccessful as a chorus, because they told us nothing about the plot we didn’t already know. The jokes—like the rest of the show—were a bit hit-or-miss.
Simon Broucke’s (CC ’19) music was good. I was still humming “Just One Candidate” hours after the show; and “Ferris Pasta-bilities” was embarrassingly funny and memorable. But much like the chorus, the songs told us nothing we didn’t already know. One could conceivably miss every lyric of every song and lose nothing plot-relevant. The sheer amount of large, full-ensemble numbers stymied possibilities for interesting harmonies and unique choreography, and caused many of them to feel very much the same.
Despite the undeniable talent of all the actors, Bwog members expressed that it was difficult to care about their stereotypical characters. Chelsea was so unsympathetic that an audience member cheered when her friend Leah (Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21) abandoned her, fed up with her narcissism. Talmage Wise, an extremely skilled performer, deserved better in his senior spring than to be cast as a one-dimensional, unfortunately queer-coded villain with confusing motivations. The romantic subplot between Leah and William’s friend Zach (Joel Meyers, CC ’21) was simply not believable.
Some of the Columbia references in the show were wielded successfully for gut-busting humor—ESC impeachment, Lincoln Center, and the bottle-flipping guy on Low come to mind. But others were thrown in simply for the sake of being Columbia-related, and missed their mark. The show could have been written by someone who had never been to Columbia, and simply read the first 10 pages of buy sell memes.
Varsity Show could have improved their writing in one of two ways. The first is by leaning into the absurdism: Alma dancing with a horde of owls and William stealing the key to the Columbia vault were funny, but confusing, given that the rest of the plot was relatively realistic. The second is by leaning into the realism: focusing on a specific, unique narrative grounded in real life, not musical theater tropes. The most impressive thing about this year’s Varsity Show was that despite being full of Columbia-specific references, it still felt incredibly generic.
The design elements somewhat redeemed the writing of this year’s Vshow. We all liked the prop and set design, which included PrezBo peeking out from the corner of a backdrop, a full lofted bed, and a set of Ferris condiments. The attention to detail – like the posters on the bulletin board and Chelsea’s CC blanket – worked, more than anything else, to really ground the show in Columbia. The sound and lighting design was particularly effective in the EC party scene and Diana elevator scene. (Red lighting and a cool voice saying “Going down”? It was just like being there.) Our favorite makeup and costuming moment was Alma, whose glittery eyeshadow was visible from the back row, ripping off her painted black dress to reveal a pair of sparkly shorts for her dance scene.
Ultimately, it was not clear what this year’s Varsity Show was trying to achieve. The director’s note in the program begins with “Theater is and always has been political.” It claims to present “a Varsity Show that does not remain neutral,” but if there was any particular political stance beyond the most basic—“The Future is Female”—it was obscure to us. If it was, as some Bwog members suspected, a metaphor for the 2016 election, it was neither original (the election was the subject of 2016’s Vshow) nor politically incisive. Bogged down by its wish to appeal to the widest variety of Columbia students possible, Varsity Show had almost nothing meaningful to say.
Most of us at Bwog entered with their expectations cautiously raised, hoping that the show would be as good as they knew it could be. They were disappointed. Having never seen Vshow before, I entered with no particular expectations, and left feeling simply neutral. For all its prestige and endowment, and given a full academic year to perfect it, Lights Out on Broadway could have been much, much better—but I wouldn’t call it two wasted hours, either. For a little taste of Columbia humor, catchy music and artistically tilted Lerner tables, head down to Roone this weekend for the 124th Annual Varsity Show.
See the Varsity Show tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM and 8 PM. Tickets available online.