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.
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