Bwog attended last night’s premiere of “Morningside Nights,” the 120th Varsity Show. Bwog discussed, and former EIC Alexandra Svokos primarily wrote this review. Photography by Features Editor Alexander Pines.
Last year, we wondered at the purpose of the Varsity Show itself: “[S]houldn’t we expect some social commentary meat on those musical theatre bones?” With V120, happily, the creators took that to heart. Written by Rae Binstock and Eric Donahue, “Morningside Nights” was both entertainment and social commentary, precisely what a Varsity Show should be. V120 reflected this year’s community and must be lauded for that. Their ways of getting there may not have been particularly sound, but in terms of venerably using the platform to both present and comment on major Columbia/Barnard issues, V120 was a spectacular success.
To non-virgin ears, V120 did not have a unique plotline—it was a combination of V118 (administration does something bad, community has to come together) and V119 (PrezBo!). “Morningside Nights” was almost a musical remix of Daphne Chen’s, CC’14, November 2013 Spec opinion piece letter to President Bollinger. Going to Columbia under Bollinger leaves many of us with some daddy issues. Bollinger, much as we joke about him, is an impressive and influential but stand-offish figure. PrezBo was not in the audience last night, nor do we expect him to make an appearance during the rest of the weekend.
The plot of V120 is that PrezBo’s nephew, Alistair (played by a magnetic Sean Walsh, CC’14), is an undergraduate craving ’Bo’s attention. But with Bollinger away on a “spiritual journey to Tibet to try and find [his] ‘Global Center,'” Alistair takes charge to win his uncle’s approval, by setting harsh regulations, notably a sundown curfew. This year’s Varsity Show was a specific critique on Bollinger’s role here, rather than V119—PrezBo as comedy—or V118—critiquing capitalism and the administration as a nebulous whole.
The hero of the story is Lucy (Lindsay Garber), a graduating senior intent on earning a Bwog Senior Wisdom. Themes revolved around making your mark on the school before realizing, of course, it’s all about the community. It was a senior-centric show, but we noticed underclassmen having more feels than jaded seniors did. Juxtaposing freshman Lucy (sweet-voiced Lacey Bookspan) with senior Lucy was cute.
At the opening scene on 40s on 40, Lucy is told (by Bwog editors with questionable accents and an enviable squirrel sweater) that she did not do enough to earn a Senior Wisdom. We took slight issue with this (echoing V117’s hero journey to get a Blue and White Campus Character) as Senior Wisdoms are granted unto both those who actively influenced the community (the Daphne Chens) and those non-student-leaders with solid wisdom. But to be frank, we agreed we would not have given Lucy a Senior Wisdom: She just was not very remarkable or interesting.
Moving on from egocentricism, Garber acted fine enough. The characters were dictated by stereotypes—FemSex girl, DG girl, football player, Bwogger—and their actors worked with that. Garber, particularly, had a consistently strong and steady singing voice, holding it together through the whole performance. Special attention must be paid to Kyle Marshall as Alistair’s hanger-on Chip, easily the most endearing character, thanks to Marshall’s brilliant, humorous physicality and earnestness.
Lucy’s romantic partner was Evan, played by Sam Balzac, a fellow senior hoping to get off the Columbia Law School wait list. Evan was one shade of a character, and Balzac got his voice through the production. More empathetic was his girlfriend Helen (Emma Grueskin). Helen was presented as annoying and squeaky, but mostly came across as a desperate girl begging for attention from her clearly uninterested, self-centered boyfriend. No wonder she was so obnoxious. Most of the women were presented as “squeaky,” with Lucy called explicitly that. In a showing of ironic sexism, Alistair consistently referred to women as “harlots” and “wenches.” While clearly a joke, it does become hard to hear slurs as punchlines.
Similarly, young Bollinger’s character was problematic. Though an accepted gay man, Alistair was as flamboyant a gay villain stereotype as they come. He recruits Evan, making it clear he only wants him for his masculinity—because of course that’s all predatory gay men look for. Still, Walsh was spectacular in the role given to him. He was entertaining and expressive, and especially impressive during the intro to “Look At Me, Uncle Lee,” where he sang while playing a piano onstage before bursting into a wonderfully choreographed routine featuring several silver-wigged “Bollingers.”
Still, V120 managed to stay ostensibly inclusive in gender and sexuality. Two gay (male) couples were portrayed and Barnard played a major role: Lucy was a Barnard student, and Midnight Breakfast was a central point. The marvelous, “immortal” DSpar (played by a spot-on Ellie Beckman), influenced plot and direction. Bwog’s Barnard contingent was pleased with this Barnard-cism. The girls onstage had those same experiences all Bears have (drinking wine while reading DSpar fan fiction!), and the writers even threw in a Cathedral Gardens punchline. One Barnard Bwogger wondered where all the Barnard shit-making jokes were, before realizing she was actually being treated with respect and acceptance for once. Sadly for SEAS and GS-ers, this was a strictly BC/CC show.
We must discuss that, as many commenters pointed out, this was a starkly white cast. When Evan refers to Lucy’s “fair skin” and Alistair speaks about penning a Spec op-ed entitled “Privilege is another form of oppression,” one cannot help but say, “Wait, what?”—though it does set the production up for socioeconomic reads. For instance, one of Alistair’s running jokes is to have dramatic “asides,” where everyone must freeze so he can soliloquize. While his parents and Chip gamely pause for him, the rest of the cast interrupts—it is only when he is in his own world and class that his rules are right.
Moving on, this was a fantastic production on a technical level. Solomon Hoffman, CC’14, created beautiful music, as is to be expected at this point. The final cross of “There’s a College on a Hilltop” and “Roar, Lion, Roar” was stunning. The band played gorgeously, bringing liveliness and pretty melodies, with successful interludes and a prelude. Nick Parker, CC’14, joined Hoffman with appropriate, timely, and funny lyrics—we were impressed he managed to get in a line about Spec going out of print on such short notice and delighted to hear “oral sex or cheese” in song. The set, designed by the ever-fantastic Jiin Choi, CC’14, was befitting the VShow’s massive budget. The choreography, by Lauren Wingenroth, was fine—nothing too beautiful, but nothing too boring. Most dances consisted of standard musical theater steps, which predictably wandered into the trap of looking cheesy or forced. “Shafted” was an exception—a masterfully created scene, bringing together the height of the impressive musical, lyrical, choreographical (go with it), and vocal abilities in this production. We liked how choreography was used to develop Chip and Alistair’s characters, like during Alistair’s “asides,” which were accompanied by flashy movements and a splash of cool blue light.
We loved the sweet “Tasting the Signs,” but were mostly confused by the misplaced “HardCore” (though Michael Carter was a great Darwin). The writers threw in funny, pertinent one-liners (“You’ve completely failed despite your best intentions #OurBlue;” “We didn’t protest Theta enough!”), and ultimately the show was relevant and artfully done. The line “Don’t just sweep it under the rug like the administration does with all gender-based misconduct at Columbia” was enough to elicit one of the biggest applauses of the night. At the end of the show, when a disembodied voice of ‘Bo tells Alistair they’ll discuss his behavior at a Town Hall in several months, and that he’s “always watching you—never acting or making a difference, but always watching,” it was bitingly, hilariously real.