May

4

Varsity Show Review: Missed Connections

Written by

actors names

John Fisher and Jonah Weinstein

Bwog was in attendance last night at the premiere of the 119th Varsity Show, “The Great Netscape.” We laughed, we cried. Then we retreated to the secret Bwog lair, discussed, and then laughed and cried some more. Alex Jones writes, with contributions from the whole staff. 

If taken on its own terms, V119 was an overall success. The one-liners were predominately effective, and Columbia was sufficiently lambasted such that the audience was engaged by the navel-gazing. It’s difficult to wholly criticize a work that provided consistent entertainment to the average audience member. Laughter abounded, and yet the event felt empty. Something deeper, more analytically probing was missing. In the end, one came away with the sense that V119 was a conservative, safe, entry into the Varsity Show canon. It lands one-line punches, goes through song and dance, and then the curtain closes. The experience forced us to reflect upon the question of what role the VShow plays in our vibrant, self-critical, community. With so much time, talent, funding, and a captive audience, shouldn’t we expect some social commentary meat on those musical theatre bones?

The show begins with an introduction to the main character, shorterall-donning Kat, played by Rebecca Farley, CC ’16, and her reservation about her obsession with digital communication. Does it stymie our ability to express ourselves to other human beings and cripple the development of interpersonal skills? The stage is filled with side-stepping, BlackBerry-addicted Jeff Wingers as the company extolls the trials and tribulations of such nascent hyper-connectedness in “Columbia, Let’s Connect” which sets tone for the show to follow. Weaker singing chops—cringe-worthy at times, acceptable at others—combined with uninspired choreography moved the audience to discreetly check Twitter and brace for a long first act.

Bwog had high hopes for the Luddite-inspired theme, despite disagreeing with the ideological direction. Unfortunately, this plot line gets all but forgotten and is blatantly ignored as the characters prove multiple times that they are capable of normal human-to-human relations. For example: the surprise 1020 scene, “The World Beyond 110th”, and most notably “The Perfect Words,” which Bwog found musically compelling (the staccato interweaving of Dylan, Ethan Fudge, CC ’15, and Julian, Jonah Weinstein, CC ’16, has the potential to be highly impressive, if accomplished in equal tempo in subsequent performances). This theme had potential given the year’s events—Robert & Kristine, CUMB, the Brownstone drama, and Matthew Renick’s resignation—and yet nothing interesting was produced that played with those defining moments of Columbia culture. If you changed the specific references in the one-line jokes, the whole show could easily have taken place at Greendale Community College or Brown. Their students are certainly #awkward too, and “the weather” is not a USNWR Top 10-exclusive thing.

Before this ostensible theme progressed, Emlyn Hughes, who strangely never again appears on stage, declares that a massive catastrophe has struck campus. The Internet is down! Oh, no! Was this a deus ex machina at the beginning of the play to save the show from plotless incoherence? Apparently, yes!  If you think that sounds strange, wait until you appreciate it first hand. It’s genuinely absurd.

And thus the first act proceeds: a continuous introduction of themes and plot lines. Are we to care primarily about the personal importance of Kat’s Spec Column, Internet-induced antisocial behavior, sex positivity (a perennial V-Show theme), sticking it to the administration, establishing one’s place at a large school, or the—clearly popular—”endless stream of puns” story line? Oh, or the “weather machine” plot line that seemed lifted straight from a Disney Channel Original Movie. So which is it? We had no idea either.

so basically seas equals coveralls

Rebecca Farley as Kat

The mess of plot lines worried us, as we couldn’t see a viable route out of the situation. How could the show accomplish anything interesting while burdened with incoherent story lines inhabited by one-dimensional characters? But maybe Bwog had it wrong all along. Maybe the V-Show didn’t need to convincingly resolve these conflicts, so long as it served up juicy jokes relevant to the audience. This was a sizable point of disagreement and confusion for Bwog’s review, and (although you’ll never believe it) we are writing with a genuine sense of intellectual/artistic humility.

Perhaps V119 dropped all pretense of producing a coherently-plotted, socially/politically/culturally critical piece of performance art, and instead focused its efforts on producing a musical theatre event that hinged solely upon delivering an endless string of Columbia-centric jokes to a Columbia-affiliated audience. That’s really not such a deplorable goal. Bwog might enjoy such an event, and walk away with a refreshed arsenal of Columbian puns and Barnard stereotypes. (Un)fortunately, Bwog has a slightly higher bar for the Varsity Show, especially after last year’s success.

In 2012, we described V118 as:

“leap[ing] over [tough issues] 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.”

No such appreciation for critical engagement or general enjoyment is possible for V119. The issues are reductive; in “The Administrative Runabout,” “paperwork”—not policy or possession of a weather control machine—defines the evil of the administration. Without any critical engagement, the V-Show feels like a wasted opportunity to artistically inspire dialogue among an audience that consists of almost the entire campus. This opportunity is all but wasted as V119 tees up one punchline after another without ever significantly developing a theme that was critically important to the Columbia community.

To bring an end to this meta-analysis, let’s just tackle the inevitable “But they’re only students—your peers!—with schoolwork and social lives to balance. You expect too much! Harsh, Bwog.” comment that is already down below; even as we write. It is true that they are students, but it’s also true that this show has much tradition, aid, and funding. So let’s either embrace and acknowledge the amateurish JV119 model, or strive for unqualified excellence (V118 did it).

From an artistic standpoint, the actors showed a valiant effort with the sub-par writing they were given. Although their characters were one-dimensional with seemingly inconsistent personalities, Rebecca Farley, CC ’16, and Molly Heller GS/JTS ’15, are clearly talented performers. Weinstein was also engaging onstage, though his athlete-turned-lover persona felt forced and uninteresting. Olivia Harris, CC’14, has a strong voice, though the music did not appropriately showcase her talents. Bwog’s favorite part of the show was undeniably John Fisher, CC’16, whose showmanship was leagues above the rest. Although out of place, his tapdancing was incredible and amazed even the most jaded audience member. However, Bwog constantly felt our focus being pulled toward Fisher, even in group numbers that did not feature him.

Musically, the melodies were underwhelming and felt unresolved. The pit orchestra, on the contrary, was the most solid part of the show. Led and orchestrated by Solomon Hoffman, CC’14, the musicians artfully pulled the audience through the interminable scene transitions. Afterward, Bwog found itself humming the first violin’s part instead of any of the lines the characters actually sung. The musicians certainly knew what they were doing.

The Varsity Show’s best humor comes from its relevancy; however, V119 avoided the potentially challenging topics from this year that would have provided some of the best, most personable, and most relevant humor that could have lasted for longer than one line. In addition to a general lack of ambition, minor issues were numerous and spanned every facet of the production—holistically, the production felt flimsy. There were too many missed opportunities for a show allegedly about missed connections.

Average Bwog rating: 5.5/10

Not N’Sync via Laura Quintela

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85 Comments

  1. this review  

    is as poorly written as the V-show was

  2. That's not how you use

    to wit.

  3. To wit,

    "for example".

  4. Weather Machine  

    Weather Machine

  5. hey bwog  

    fuck you.

  6. cc15  

    i actually think that this was a spot-on analysis of v119.

    • Anonymous  

      yes! this review verbalized exactly how i felt about the v119

    • Anonymous  

      I concur. The review was dead on. And why I am I not surprised that the embarassingly stupid weather machine plot device was lifted from a fucking disney flick? Pathetic. Whomever wrote the varsity show this year would be better suited to writing cheesy, unfunny and cliche sitcoms like 30 rock. That said, the actors, and especially the tall indian dude, were really talented, (sans the athlete who was far too gay to play the part convincingly - there, I said it). It's just unfortunate that the creative team was composed of middle school students.

      • Anonymous  

        1. way to use whom incorrectly. are you like...a middle school student?
        2. 30 rock is amazing and i still want to cry sometimes when i remember it's never coming back.
        3. i didn't even like the varsity show very much but you're an asshole.

      • whoareyou  

        @Anonymous: "the athlete" isn't and didn't seem gay, but thanks for trying to stereotype all gay people. His character had little arc in his lines and he tried to put something into it, coming off as a boyish and nervous student who so desperately wanted to find the "perfect words".

      • Anonymous  

        You're totally right. Gay people can't play sports. It's not like there's an out gay basketball player in the NBA right now.
        Also, you do not seem to know any of the actors personally, so don't make assumptions about their sexuality.

  7. CC '13

    Wow, I never thought I'd say this but: this Bwog theater review is honest, detailed, and sufficiently backs up its various arguments.

    Even though it's a tad harsh, this review was pretty analytically sound and well-written overall.

    • Disagreed  

      Show, don't tell:
      "we are writing with a genuine sense of intellectual/artistic humility."
      If you have to say that explicitly, you're probably not writing with humility.
      Also, refrain from using so many split infinitives, please. Grade school stuff.

  8. Anonymous  

    I too think most of this review was pretty spot-on, but how could you go without mentioning what was probably the best part, Olivia Harris? She totally stole the show.

  9. CC14

    Why mention the Varsiry Show's budget (which is not, contrary to popular belief, unlimited) when criticizing the writing? Last time I checked, none of the students working on V-Show are paid. If you're going to mention the budget, why not review aspects of the show that it actually affects, like the set, sound, and lighting? So much work goes into the design of the show and it is rarely acknowledged.

  10. Anton Ego  

    In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

  11. CC 14  

    Hate to compliment Bwog, but yeah, this review was on point

  12. A.  

    Overall, totally agree, but... "The preponderance of plot lines worried us" -- Idk if preponderance means what you think it means.

  13. Donahue 4ever  

    Anything Eric Donahue touches is gold this show is fab xoxo

  14. Anonymous

    The music actually was pretty solid, I heard a few people singing some melodies afterwards. True transitions were overwhelming and plot got lost. But awesome songs and pit!
    Congrats to Max Druz and Nick Parker and the orchestra led by Solomon!

  15. Anonymous  

    well NOW I'm excited to see this show on Sunday night! *rips up ticket*

  16. disappointed  

    I could get mad at bwog for being too harsh here, but I won't. Just like they said, last year showed me what a varsity show could be. Rebekah Lowin with her amazing voice was such a good villain, and the writing made you love her in the end anyway. When Sean Walsh sang Roar Lion Roar, it was probably the most school pride I've ever felt.

    the villain had 0 redeeming qualities, which just made you uninterested in her. the lead also had 0 redeeming qualities - what was she fighting for? social networking? last year, the lead was fighting for COLUMBIA FUCKING UNIVERSITY, and that's the way it always should be.

    Point is, if you're going to have a solid lead/villain like they did last time, you have to make sure he/she can carry a show. Pick people you want to watch, people with strong voices you want to hear (the main girl this year was probably the person onstage I wanted to watch the least, and her voice was frail...not capable of the solid high notes and strong themes the lead got to sing last year).

    Sorry, Varsity Show, but I expect more. Much more.

  17. Anonymous

    MOLLY HELLER ROCKS!

  18. CC '13

    bwog, I've ragged you before, but this review was on point. please don't make it a habit, I don't like change.

  19. SEAS '13  

    V119 made me feel old.

  20. Anonymous

    zero mention of the design? seriously?

  21. eva  

    maybe this isn't helpful but could someone please just write a vshow where the villain is prezbo with evil hair. maybe the hair controls him or maybe he just uses it to smother dissenters/whoever is trying to stop his evil plot i don't know i'm just spitballing here


    you're welcome, V120.

  22. Bwog reviews VShow: A summary  

    The 119th Varsity Show was not the 118th Varsity Show. We are displeased as a result.

  23. Also, a little irrelevant, but,  

    That isn't the proper use of the term "Deus ex machina." It isn't used to kick the plot into motion, but to abruptly resolve it.

  24. Anonamoose  

    I could barely hear anybody's consonants when they sang tonight. It made me spend half the show trying to figure out what they were sining. Not sure if I should blame the actors / actresses or the sound people.

  25. Varsity Show Alum

    Their Turkey Day show was so much better than this. It's a disgrace that they let such a beautiful concept die for a show whose entire concept and main jokes were more suited for orgo night than a varsity show. It's fairly pathetic that they went from that show to this one.

    In addition, shame on the writers and composers for not writing FOR their cast. This is hands down the most talented cast a Varsity Show has ever seen. But thanks to the writing and composing, you would never know. On the other hand, if it weren't for the performances of the cast (especially Molly, Olivia, John Fisher, etc) this show would have been the most painful experience of my life.

    Congrats to the performers, I'm not sure how they pulled this one off.

    • Anonymous

      what was the turkey day show?

    • also an alum

      Feel like talking about Turkey Day breaks omerta. Those who watch Varsity Shows or eat sausages should not see how either or made.

    • also ALSO an alum  

      If you're really a v-show alum, you should know better than to talk about Turkey Day in a public forum. And frankly, you should be a little more supportive of the cast and crew. I haven't actually seen the show yet, but no matter how good/bad it is, I'm proud of everyone involved because I know first hand exactly how much work it takes to put on the Varsity Show.

      What happens at turkey day, stays at turkey day, man.

  26. BC'15  

    Skylar Gottlieb as Ask Alice was one of, if not the greatest thing in the entire show.

  27. seas '14

    spoilers ahead (necessary? i dunno)

    liked:
    - orchestra
    - vivica's (RA) singing was superb
    - cast diversity better than last year
    - enjoyed strong female friendship of main characters
    - basically all the jokes
    - enjoyed the discussion of the "Columbia Bubble" as embodied by Barnard Girl (mellie? sorry, forgot her name already). still confused as to how she got to baker's field though
    - Go Ask Alice! sketch was superb
    - redhead tapdancing dude who strangely reminded me of McLovin from Superbad...
    - the fact that SEAS existed in a major role (i'm pretty sure we got mentioned once in v118 and that was as part of a joke...)
    - THE SET.

    disliked:
    - it's really friggin' hard to beat last year's "roar lion roar" in Great Staged Numbers
    - various resolutions subpar - vivica's downfall, kat&barnard-girl's reconciliation, sudden betrayal of vivica's sidekick. characters in general had their storylines flattened.
    - enunciation during both dialogue and singing was not always the best.
    - the dissonance between social media and physical social interactions was a great concept. alas, i felt like the message they were trying to send about it wasn't, well, sent.

    other:
    fyi, for those who didn't get to see v118, it's on youtube. (i'm really hoping that they'll upload all existing recorded v-shows. it'd be a fascinating week-long marathon.)

  28. #1 Jonah Fan  

    seriously in love with Jonah. HE'S ADORABLE!

  29. Anonymous  

    The joke about morton williams was disgusting. Whoever wrote it should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Anonamoose  

      Why? Because nearly everyone that works there looks like they hate their life?

    • Anonymous

      You sound like you work at Morton William's.

    • Anonymous  

      i thought that was either the funniest or one of the funniest moments of the whole show. every time i go to morton williams, which is almost never, the line takes 20 minutes because they have one, maybe 2 employees on check-out and they are the most miserable and unfriendly people ever. and if you whip out your ID to pay with flex you just know they want to shove it down your throat.

      • Anonymous  

        I think it's disgusting for people who get to go to Columbia to make fun of other people for having to have such a shitty job that they are frequently visibly unhappy

        • Anonymous  

          I go to Columbia, grew up in poverty, and am on welfare...and I loved that line, because thank God some writer stepped out of the Columbia bubble to recognize how shitty other people have it. I think you took that line the wrong way. It felt like a 'fuck you' to Morton Williams Inc., not to their workers.

  30. V-Show Writing Alum

    I was quite impressed with the show, though I understand Bwog's issues with the always impossible comparison to years previous. This year's show was well structured, had strong characters arcs, and a good range of various topics addressed without penetrating them deeply. I find Bwog's idea that V-Show needs to "artistically inspire dialogue" not in line with what I've always felt the show's most important purpose is: to laugh and celebrate the year and the community while making us feel okay about the absurdity Columbia inspires. It's not about telling us what to do, but only celebrating our collective anxieties.

    I found V119 quite impressive on this level, which is why a song like the Bureaucracy Runaround to be charming and really smart satire that developed naturally out of the characters and the plot. Yes, the show relied on some silly plot devices to get from Step A to B in some places, but those are minor in my eyes (and to the other alum praising the Turkey Day show, I don't know if we were at the same performance, but that was a disaster (as all Turkey Day shows are)). Scenes like the guy duet, Alice as a Jewish mother, "Little Fish in the Big SEAS," and the NSYNC homage are classics in my mind. Characters were appropriately archetype and the actors filled the rolls with a lot of passion. V119 might have been safe, but my own show was praised by this publication for making something safe as well—and it executed a lot of what I value in a show with strong gusto. I emerged outside having warm fuzzy feelings, and reciting a number of the one liners and hums, so bravo all around.

    Also huge props for finally pulling off a compelling gay romance: something writers have been plaguing and failing to pull off for at least the last five years.

    • Anonymous  

      imma fill your roll with passion ;) ;) ;) ;) ;)

    • Anonymous  

      AKA i know homophones are tough, but learn to spell <3

    • a gay person  

      I would hesitate to call the gay subplot "compelling." Perhaps "pandering" is more appropriate. It felt forced, shallow, and rushed, and disappointingly remains a SUBplot totally unrelated to the main narrative arc.

      • Varsity Show Alum  

        Ok, the show did not center around romance. There were two romances in the show. One of them was a gay relationship, and the other a straight relationship. As far as "subplot" goes, the gay relationship was not a subplot, but rather romance on a whole was a subplot. The show was not about "how can I get this person to like me." So it's a tad offensive to say that the gay romance meant nothing to the show. The gay romance in this show will be an integral part of Varsity Show history and will open up many doors for future shows.

  31. Anonymous  

    This review makes some very valid points about holes in the production, but it's a bit of a turn-off to start a review with phrases like "if taken on its own terms" and "average audience members" ... It's not nice for a critic to consider themselves to be superior to their fellow theatergoers. I also agree with what someone said before that V-Show has no obligation to make "social commentary" of any substance... In fact, that's something *most* musical theater struggles to do in a compelling, non-preachy fashion. But yes, V118 managed to do it.

    All of that said, I value the the thought and care and energy that was clearly put into this review, and I hope the same values are applied to reviewing "lesser" student theater in future.

    • Also kinda BS  

      You review the show you see: hedging your compliment towards the male duet by saying "if they can keep it up in future performances" is completely unfair to them. If it's difficult and they pull it off, say they did it well- you can't hold the mistakes in one show (like vocals in the first scene) against them as if they're set attributes and then give out conditional compliments for the good things.

      All in all, a ton of people work on the Varsity Show, and the stuff Bwog doesn't like: the theme, the plot, lack of Columbia-ness etc., were determined by the creative team- everyone else's role is to do the best they can with what they're given. I'll also second the commenter above who pointed out that mentioning what you thought of the set/lighting/sound etc would have been nice since those are the things that eat up the budget. My two cents: though there were obvious flaws, a lot of people clearly did really good work, and thats something to be celebrated.

      • Anonymous  

        Do you know what comes of pulling punches in journalism, though? Spec leads by saying that V119 "is the most fun you’ll have in Lerner—or anywhere else on campus—this year." Not only is that misleading to readers, but it screws over all the hardworking performers on other campus shows who don't have journalists to lie for them.

        By the second showing, some of the players had lost their voices. Sadly, the point about future performances was relevant. Lighting and sound as well. I'm NOT happy to admit that. I think that even those of us with grievances towards Columbia or with no school spirit are very proud of student expression and the entire V119 crew.

        • Anonymous  

          You pointing out a difficulty that arose in a subsequent show has nothing to do with the original statement Bwog made, unless it was one of the two guys they mentioned, which no one has said it was, and which you know it wasn't. So stop acting like it's a response to Bwog's point or my criticism, and make it your own complaint.

          You can't "lie" on matters of opinion either...

  32. maximus decimus meridius  

    Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you're here?

  33. Anonymous

    You go, Solomon!

  34. Ummm

    Rebecca Farley is extremely talented. She was completely and utterly miscast and misused. Her entire vocal part was written for an alto, however, Rebecca is a very very high soprano. She can dance like no other and has incredible comedic timing. It's too bad at wasnt given any strong jokes. She did a fantastic job with what she was given.

  35. King Theoden  

    Last I checked, Theoden, not Aragorn, was King of Rohan.

  36. ok v119 wasn't amazing but  

    Bwog: "It’s difficult to wholly criticize a work that provided consistent **entertainment** to the average audience member. **Laughter** abounded, and yet the event felt empty"

    Varsity Show homepage: "Since 1894 the Varsity Show has **entertained** students, faculty, and administrators – bringing **laughs** to Morningside Heights in an annual satire on life at Columbia"

    Maybe it's difficult to criticize it because you are expecting a show that is different than what they say ON THEIR WEBSITE. Does Bwog also wholly criticize apples for not being oranges?

  37. I liked this show, but  

    ...at the end of the first act, I had "Another Epic Day!" stuck in my head!

  38. Scrotumface McGee  

    I'm watching v118 right now

  39. Yo

    The low library flat was incredible, and so were the changing LEDs on all the different set elements. The weather machine wasn't used very well as a device in the show, but it was well designed and executed by whoever made it. Show ID for New ID & LLL2?! Those set pieced perfectly satirize Columbia bureaucracy. The set pieces joke at the confusion we as students have all felt at one point or another while we've been on this campus! (i.e. trying to find the right floor on Lerner, the difference between campus level and ground level, Shapiro vs. Shapiro). I heard a lot of people laugh when the lights came up, even before anyone spoke.

    If bwog is getting worked up about budget, design, and physical production value, they were clearly ignoring what was right in front of them the entire show. While the plot is incredibly important, it isn't all people go to shows for. Unfortunately, I think Spiderman On Broadway proved that a little too well. I hope next year's Bwog Varsity Show review will contain a comprehensive analysis of all elements of the show. After all, our Alumni work on Broadway in very different capacities. Stephen Davan (CC '12) of V118 Creative Team designed set elements for Pippin (now playing) and Big Fish.

    Otherwise, I think this Bwog review was pretty spot on. If there was one thing V119 did just as well ( if not better) than past Varsity Show was the set and design. Kudos to art director Jiin Choi and the design team.

  40. annon  

    i think the cast of 118 was also better than 119

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