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V120 Review: Spectacular Theatrics, Token Diversity

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.

IMG_7886

Through the gates into a world of wonder

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.

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Such an enviable squirrel sweater

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.

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A masterwork of door-eography

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.

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73 Comments

  • speaking of says:

    @speaking of speaking of, where the hell are the senior wisdoms, bwog??? i’m tryna have some feels here before graduating

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I do not get at all why the Bwog senior wisdoms are such pre-eminent institutions at this fucking school. I just don’t understand this fascination with the campus press. Do people at Columbia just have nothing better to do than talk online about what other people are doing? Why must ever major event warrant a media circus? Why does Bwog get 300+ comment threads full of essay replies whenever something they review a show? It says something about Columbia’s complete lack of culture when it takes a shitty review for people to begin giving a shit about the students that go here, even if it’s under the guise of Columbia’s reputation.

      1. Also lol says:

        @Also lol Laughing at the idea of Bwog bestowing/granting Senior Wisdoms like they rule the universe. As noted many years previously, any selection of the “wise” with that little diversity is obviously the result of a poor selection process. And the wisdoms themselves rarely contain an original thought in them.

        If you feel validated to get one, good for you! But for everyone else, they don’t matter.

      2. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Says the dude writing a comment on Bwog.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Says the dude writing a comment on Bwog.

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous Says the dude writing a comment on Bwog.

    2. they probably didn't pick you says:

      @they probably didn't pick you because you were actually smart and hardworking and got Phi Beta Kappa, while those rabble-rousing protestors are lowering the value of our degree.

      1. speaking of pt. 2 says:

        @speaking of pt. 2 interested in reading them, not writing one. i enjoy the ‘feels’ the feature gives me and i haven’t seen very many of them yet

  • Your 5th Grade Homeroom Teacher says:

    @Your 5th Grade Homeroom Teacher I believe you forgot a conclusion, Bwoggy!

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous fuck conclusions

    2. Ridiculous says:

      @Ridiculous That they mention Eric Donahue and Sean Walsh but completely ignore Sam Balzac’s singing. You were FLAT, Sean!

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous What show were you watching? Sean was awesome

  • Uh says:

    @Uh So the point of the show was….. What? This review read as 30 disconnected observations about the show with zero engagement of whatever the show was really about. And if it was as empty as “where’s prezbo?” That’s hardly social commentary.

    1. Kevin Chen says:

      @Kevin Chen 1. It’s a review, not a summary. It would be no fun if reading a review spoiled the show.

      2. PrezBo is very well known yet he basically ignores undergraduates at Columbia. I mean, has anybody here been to his house to watch a football game?[1] “Always watching, never acting or making a difference.” It’s a bigger deal than many people realize, and I’m glad they brought it up in the show.

      [1] http://bwog.com/2013/12/14/actual-quote-i-sat-on-lee-bollingers-bed-and-was-watching-football-on-tv/

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Right, because ruining every single joke during your liveblog (which is rude to the performers, by the way) didn’t do that already.

      2. Uh, sorry bud says:

        @Uh, sorry bud Go read the NYRB. Then tell me again that it’s impossible engage with the substance of a show in a review. I wasn’t arguing for a total plot summary at all, but I also didn’t come to see a list of individual grades-

        Sean: Great
        Set: Great
        Choreo: Fine
        Music: Good

        – thrown into sentence form. Great reviews can and do criticize or engage with the ideas of the work they’re reviewing. This … not so much.

  • Well says:

    @Well This was good and honest! Svokos is the last voice of reason.

    1. aea2144 says:

      @aea2144 I believe the Spectator opera review corps is looking for new associates!

  • Starkly White Cast says:

    @Starkly White Cast You can’t blame the team for picking an “all white cast.” First off, Matt Soto is Hispanic. Sure that’s one out of about a dozen students but do you know if any persons of color auditioned? The problem may not be that they didn’t cast persons of color but instead that the individuals could not sing/dance/act or commit to the grueling hours needed for the Varsity Show. Matt may have been the only person of color who auditioned that could do all three of these things well and devote the 40+hrs a week needed.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous it speaks to the kind of environment that the v show provides. If no poc auditions its probably bc they feel that kind of production is not inclusive (or has not been in the past) or the varsity show didn’t do enough to recruit poc. Look at the way they portrayed a gay person–as a stereotypical predator that hardly speaks to a welcoming environment.

      speaking from experience even if those white people were cool towards poc its hard to be one of two or three voices were most people are white.

      Obviously there are poc that can handle time commitment/hard work what kind of argument is that

      1. wondering... says:

        @wondering... Did you (or bwog) actually see the show? because for a “stereotypical gay predator” im having a hard time remember more than like two times his being gay was even mentioned. cant gay people be allowed to be flamboyant without being predators, or is that something only straight people can do. if anything, bwog is actively trying to read negative stereotypes onto stuff…

      2. non-vshow theater person says:

        @non-vshow theater person maybe it speaks partly to the fact that CMTS did a joint show this semester with the Black Theater Ensemble?

        1. Listennnn says:

          @Listennnn The only reason why CMTS reached across the table to do a production with BTE was because they were seriously strapped for cash after the shitshow that was the handling of the CU Arts Initiative. They really couldn’t have cared less about actually uniting and getting the chance to work with BTE. And, frankly speaking, it seemed like the cast was so happy to be done working with each other upon the show’s conclusion. Let it be known.

          1. This says:

            @This is 100% false. Do you even know *ANYTHING* about how student theatre operates

      3. WOAH says:

        @WOAH Slow down. The villain tried to recruit that guy because he was strong, and his sidekick couldn’t fight people. This is not “predatory,” it’s just common sense.

        Also, I can’t think of any other predatory flamboyant gay villains (or even gay villains at all) to substantiate lambasting a supposed archetype. The villain in Skyfall is the only one I can think of, but he wasn’t “flamboyant” or “lisping,” and he was far less provocative and “predatory” than most female Bond villains.

        Did you not pay attention enough to notice that the villain’s parents, who are conservative old money and only watch Fox news, are supportive of his sexuality and sexual expression? If that’s not sex positivity and inclusion, I don’t know what is.

        1. Tastemaker says:

          @Tastemaker “Also, I can’t think of any other predatory flamboyant gay villains (or even gay villains at all) to substantiate lambasting a supposed archetype.”

          http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SissyVillain

          ie have you never seen a musical and or disney movie… ?

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous When talking about diversity in something like the Varsity Show, it’s also important to realize that the demographics of the performing arts community are just not the same as those of the wider student body. There are definitely extremely talented people of color who audition for shows, but as someone who has auditioned before there are honestly just a lot of white people who like to do musical theatre here at Columbia. Maybe that’s because of wider cultural problems that should be fixed, either at the high school level or in society at large, but that’s not something that can be fixed at a callback when the production team has to cast the best show they can. Because the Varsity Show is the main thing that people outside the community look at and is such a Columbia tradition, people think it needs to reflect the diversity of the student body. Ideally, it would, but the only way for that to happen is for a more diverse audition pool. Now, before some commenter brings in an example of some of the many talented people of color at this school, I’m not talking individuals, I’m talking demographics. Columbia is only about 40% white, but I have never seen a musical theatre audition room or a callback that even comes close to approaching that number.

      No other campus group gets this kind of scrutiny for the racial makeup of its members, nor should they.

    3. A Black V120 Auditioner says:

      @A Black V120 Auditioner I’ll have you know, I am a POC who auditioned for the Varsity Show, fully aware of the strict and very demanding time commitments.
      I don’t want to sound bitter for not getting cast, as this year’s show was phenomenal, but I can only beg that you be more sensitive to the People of Color on this campus.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous You people are disgusting. After hearing about this website I thought it would be really interesting to see how theater reviewers interact and discuss important issues but no. All I see is a bunch of conceited privileged assholes mocking anyone not in there super-alpha-secret blog. Maybe if you actually left frat row you’d discover that not everyone is a POC that is upper class and has daddy’s money in times of emergency and that people are struggling day in day out with racism, classism and sexism just for trying to be who they are. I’m not coming back here, because you know what? I actually am going to go help those less privileged, socially awkward people instead of just sitting here mocking them and looking for things to bash in veesh.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous is this Eyvana Bengochea

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous OP please reply

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous wat

  • Varsity Show alum says:

    @Varsity Show alum I thought Paulina was great! This was so much better than the Turkey Day show!

  • kyra bloom says:

    @kyra bloom is that you?

  • Can we please talk about says:

    @Can we please talk about how the villain was once again a lisping, mincing, effeminate gay male? It’s amazing that a show could pretend to be sex-positive and “inclusive” while perpetuating microaggressions like this.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous And if the villain were a straight white heteronormative male I could write:

      “Can we please talk about how the villain was a straight white heteronormative male! I’m sick of how this campus homogenizes the white male experience, attributes all of us with corporate sensibilities, and mocks us simply for what we born into.”

      What’s your point exactly?

      The villain might have been a Nigerian Dwarf, or a Chinese paraplegic. Why does it matter at all?

    2. Um says:

      @Um “Once again”? Once again to what? When has this happened before?

      Also, did you even see the show? Sean Walsh played Sean Walsh, not really a stereotype, more like a theatrical version of himself…I’m glad this year didn’t try to force him to act straight like 118 did. And there was another completely not stereotypical gay couple (one of whom was a masculine football player).

  • Sean Walsh says:

    @Sean Walsh was perfect.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous perf*

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous There should be a black-focused Varsity Show.
    “PrezBo and Bess”

    1. Or says:

      @Or We could do another one of those two-woman performances of The Wiz, this time with even whiter actors.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous What is BwogTheater’s official response to this review?

  • That Sean Walsh says:

    @That Sean Walsh is so hot right now.

  • Morningside Nights says:

    @Morningside Nights is probably the lamest pun from the Varsity Show yet.

  • GS says:

    @GS Leave it to CC writers to put in multiple gay characters (pop diversity) while leaving out a whole school of poor kids (actual diversity). I won’t be going, not that y’all care.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous How exactly do you know whether any of the characters in the show were poor or not? Did you have a look at the tax returns of all of the actors prior to watching the show?

      It doesn’t cost money to be a part of V show. Anyone can audition. If for whatever reason there were no ‘poor people’ in the show, then perhaps they didn’t audition, or perhaps the ‘rich people’ were better than them at acting.

      To suggest there’s anything nefarious about the casting process of Veesh is absurd. No-one has any kind of evil poor-hating, gay-loving agenda.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous I’m talking about the GS-CC class divide, obviously not discussing tax returns.

        To suggest there isn’t a gay loving agenda (V119/120 writers intentionally making couples gay solely for the kneejerk applause, not that there’s anything wrong with that) or that there haven’t been perennial complaints about talented GSers being passed up for the Varsity Show on the basis of their school is ignorant. It does cost money to be a part of the Varsity Show, something GSers have struggled with, same as there’s an opportunity cost for everything else on campus.

        1. Excuse me, says:

          @Excuse me, You just admitted you didn’t see the show. How do you know AT ALL how 120 handled their gay characters?

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous I read this review. And if I’m on point, isn’t it a little embarrassing to use the same gimmick two years in a row?

        2. Wait says:

          @Wait Wait are you crazy rn?
          First of all, it doesn’t cost at all to be in the Varsity Show. Where did you hear that? This reminds me of that Lizzi McGuire episode where Gordo goes to high school and someone charged him for the elevator pass when there was no such thing as an elevator pass and then everyone laughed at him. Did someone pretend charge you to audition or something? Unless you mean to say that by being in the Varsity Show people are unable to hold outside jobs (not necessarily true). That is a different story, but CC students likely need money just as much as GS students. I really don’t understand why you’re so mad.

          Say what you will, but last year’s show did have a GS cast member. And he was really funny. And bald.

  • lol says:

    @lol what is even going on in these comments? its like everyone has pineapples in the butts. its just a school musical everyone calm down

    1. HAHA says:

      @HAHA Amen!

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous It’s almost like we’re on Bwog.

  • dabookwetter says:

    @dabookwetter ima wet ur book.

  • Oh my gosh says:

    @Oh my gosh Sean Walsh and Kyle Marshall stole the show! Couldn’t wait for them to come back onstage during the show. Congrats to both.

  • Anonamoose says:

    @Anonamoose Show was dope yo

  • SEAS '15 says:

    @SEAS '15 I was a bit sad that there were zero inclusion of SEAS or GS. There was one mention of a problem set, and that was it.

    So much of the play focused on Barnard, which is awesome for Barnard. But if the writers were trying to be inclusive of other schools, it would have been nice to include the second half of the university.

    SEAS has a real presence on campus, and I found myself kind of missing on a lot of the jokes (a ton of CC/Lit hum references). Obviously the play shouldn’t be catered to me, but there is a very real, large audience that wasn’t addressed.

    They could have made a joke about how the curfew didn’t even register with SEAS students because we’re all cooped up in our rooms anyway, or an interaction with a GS student who has been to all seven continents, fought in two wars, and raised triplets as a single parent.

    Throw us a bone, VS.

    1. bruh says:

      @bruh last year was all SEAS….

    2. CC '14 says:

      @CC '14 I completely agree. And if you notice that the Producers and Director were all Barnard, as well as all but one of the female cast members, it’s pretty obvious that they had an agenda. Yes, Barnard is a part of Columbia. But the Barnard seniors are only a small part of the graduating class at Columbia! Why did it focus on Barnard traditions, like the candle at convocation and Midnight Breakfast, instead of things that everyone in the senior class could relate to?

      Barnard complains that they’re not treated like they’re a part of Columbia and so many clubs on campus create “Barnard rep” positions and make sure their boards have enough Barnard people, but then, when they’re given the reigns to a Columbia tradition, they completely shut out Columbia.

      1. check yo facts, yo says:

        @check yo facts, yo only two of the producers went to barnard

      2. also says:

        @also its not like she show was COMPLETELY about barnard like you think it is. they had swim test jokes, TONS of core jokes, 40s on 40 — there was really only that one song that was about barnard. and everyone at columbia is invited to midnight breakfast–would you have rather seen an orgo night song??

  • Barney Stinson says:

    @Barney Stinson did someone say “daddy issues?”

    Daddy’s home.

  • Happy person says:

    @Happy person Despite all the side-debates going on in this thread, just wanted to say that I loved the show. Congrats V120, you rocked. I’m constantly in awe at the talent and passon on this campus! Also, Sean Walsh, you’re fantastic.
    And the set was gorgeous.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Agreed.

      Honestly I was a little worried when I saw the writers were the same as last year, because V119 didn’t really come together.

      I ate my words though. You all put on a great show. You should be proud.

  • confused says:

    @confused why so many barnard jokes

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Oh can you just graduate already?

  • well, you dont.. says:

    @well, you dont.. sound condescending or anything. “awesome for Barnard”. if you feel like your identity/emotionally well-being should be tied to an institution of higher learning (and how often they are referenced in a school musical), i think we have a bigger problem here.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous But what about JTS? JTS and the larger Jewish community went completely unmentioned. The show was unbelievable, but if it’s supposed to represent Columbia, JTS and the Jews should get at least a few shout outs! But congrats!!

    1. Backdoor says:

      @Backdoor BACKDOOR ALERT

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous How good were Alex and Brittany in that waspy-parent scene? They’re so attractive oh my god

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Didn’t you forget to mention someone? Like the director, Emily Feinstein, who did an amazing job putting all the show’s pieces together?

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