Core Conditioning: The 118th Annual Varsity Show
Written by Bwog Staff
Update: All the songs from the show are now available online.
When writing a show for an audience that consists of Columbia’s entire undergraduate population, basing the plot around the Core seems like choosing the easy route: It’s something that everyone can relate to, it provides cookie-cutter jokes and references, and it’s relatively low risk. It is, however, a path rife with the pitfalls of predictability and ennui. Yet V118 doesn’t just sidestep these obstacles, but leaps over them with sparkle and wit. It goes above and beyond; questioning and criticizing Columbia as opposed to merely parodying her. V118 takes a smartly written plot and executes it with passion and gusto, giving all of us a chance to self-deprecate and still leave with our pride intact.
The show’s strongest quality is undoubtedly its relevance. The Core, pre-professionalism, the validity and worth of a liberal arts education—these are things that matter to all of us as Columbians. They’re on our minds. Constantly. V118 manages to pick most of these issues apart, while still taking a tongue-in-cheek approach that keeps the audience laughing throughout the show.
While Act I ran the risk of dragging, the plot and character development were both engaging and well-paced. Instead of getting bogged down by a complicated web of storylines like V117, this year’s show centered around the conflict between Niamh (which is not pronounced Neeeeee-am) O’Brien (Rebekah Lowin CC’14) and her Corporate Core, and a Columbia student named Phineas (Sean Walsh CC’14) who seeks nothing more than the permanent sanctification of Columbia’s liberal arts curriculum. Though the ending arrived somewhat suddenly and was slightly off-kilter, the message was nothing if not earnest and left us feeling happy and proud to be Columbians.
The sharply written script, by John Goodwin and Jeff Stern, both CC’12, surrounded both Niamh and Phineas with a host of lovable sidekicks. Like the plot itself, some of them ran the risk of being overly predictable: Derek (Alessio Mineo CC’14), the brown-nosing, business-minded student who desperately seeks Niamh’s official career fair recommendation; Claire (Eleanor Bray BC’14), the M2M obsessed Barnard girl playing the part of the love interest; Lexi (Jenny Singer, BC ’15), the tabloid-following foil to Phineas’s bookwormish tendencies. Clever writing, songs composed for their already strong voices, and a variety of chuckle-worthy scenarios kept these characters from falling into the background. Most endearing was undoubtedly Deantini (Gray Henry CC’14), whose performance flawlessly channeled all of the Dean’s endearing quirks while still growing and developing alongside the rest of the cast.
V118’s central cast had consistently strong vocal performances, and the variety of vocal styles (Niamh’s operatic falsetto versus Deantini’s low drone) set up entertaining contrasts. Most of the musical numbers were smartly crafted and well executed—the Butler stacks anthem “Nothing But Love” was our personal favorite. However, the Koronet v. Famiglia themed “Natural Selection” was a bit too odd as its dancing pizza theme left the world of believability established in other scenes, and “The One Percent” left us feeling drab, with the exception of Deantini’s rather hilarious interlude. “Another Epic Day!” was a great opener, and “Poor Little Lass” and “Alma’s Army” were solidly enjoyable. At times the choreography wasn’t as strong as it could have been, as actors repeatedly faced spacing issues. On the whole, however, the musical numbers were high-quality, and whatever the show lacked in choreography it more than made up for with terrific set design.
The set design was representative of the brilliance of the writing and jokes—it was fundamentally strong, but it was the small touches that really brought it home, such as the sink in Phineas’s Wien single and the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce sign at the career fair. Many of the punchlines followed this effective model: rather than try to work every scandal or significant event from the past year into the main plot, V118 instead distilled them into tremendously funny one-liners or asides (calling NoCo a “15-story coffee shop,” finding CUCR’s letter to Ahmadinejad in the stacks, working Obamanard into a breakup line). The show poked fun at other Ivies, Wall Street, and our own culture, predominantly with a strong dose of taste (jokes about GS and First Friday were probably the lone counterexamples).
With the end of the semester more or less here and finals looming, we recommend you set aside some time this weekend to see the Varsity Show. The plot is unabashedly Columbia College-centric (the sole mention of SEAS was a joke about Peña-Mora’s name), but the conflict between seeking knowledge and seeking employment is one every college student can relate to, especially come late spring. V118 gives us an opportunity to reflect lightheartedly on the past two semesters as well as Columbia’s overall culture, and this more critical approach, combined with hard-hitting jokes (the gym scene was incredibly apt, and a second use of the projector screen shortly before the finale had the audience in stitches) make for a great way to spend an evening. The core cast ran a little on the smaller side, but left little to be desired. Besides, we all know what happens when you get too many cooks in the kitchen…let’s just say that V118 is definitely Wilma.
This review represents the collective opinion of the Bwog staff and was authored by Brian Wagner