Last night, the cast and crew of the 122nd Varsity Show previewed a brief sampling of this year’s upcoming performance in the Diana Event Oval. Our Arts Editor thusly brings you his review of the West End Preview, with contributions from Editor Mason Amelotte.
Spectators of last night’s West End Preview for the 122nd Annual Varsity Show were presented with a sampling of the topical, Columbia-centric jokes and caustically satirical songs that we’ve all come to expect from Veesh. Even though the plot of the Varsity Show is kept secret until opening night, last night’s teaser featured a selection of songs and scenes taken out of context. While that does mean you have to wait two more months to see the entirety of director Jonah Weinstein’s (CC ‘16) vision for the show, here’s what you missed if you neglected to catch the preview.
The show opened to April Cho, CC ‘17, singing Columbia’s praises as an overzealous sophomore tour guide presenting to potential future-freshmen (portrayed by cast members scattered throughout the audience). Cho carries an upbeat tune for a few measures before opening up for questions from those on the tour. After being rattled by a question about how Columbia is the second most stressful school (and being assaulted by a shoe à la George W. Bush), she’s accosted by two wealthy, married alumni (Emma Smith, BC ‘19, and John Fisher, CC ‘16) who express their concerns about the current state of affairs at Columbia. In an attempt to pacify the alumni, Cho suggests going to her Contemporary Civilizations class to see what life at Columbia is really like.
Here, the preview took a turn for the best kind of ridiculous. The scene shifts to the CC classroom, with students lined up in rows of desks and the professor (Henrietta Steventon, CC ‘18) pulling frequently from a bottle of wine. After the professor makes the distinction between “who has done the reading for today?” and “who wants to talk about the reading for today?,” the class launches into a heated argument over the importance of race and gender of the authors of the CC texts. This brings us to the first big number of the preview: a song that lampoons the homogeneity of CC’s syllabus. The idea that “there’s a dead white man inside us all” dominates the chorus, allowing for some fairly scathing jabs at the ongoing debate over the CC curriculum.
Following the conclusion of the song (and the class), the stuffy, married couple immediately jump into a quick duet about the failures of the modern Columbia and the excellence of the previous era, much to their tour guide’s dismay. However, no sooner than the transitionary performance is finished, the trio find themselves confronted by a “Beta bro” advertising their “End of Days Toga Party.” Even though Cho remarks that “you don’t want to go to Beta,” she’s outvoted and the trio head off to 114th street.
This sets the stage for the final scene of the preview: the Beta party. Sorority sisters and fraternity brothers flank the stage, and our attention is drawn to Chelsea Jean-Michel, CC ‘19, who is managing new Theta pledges. She vehemently reminds them that (unlike during recruitment) tonight is all about the 4 B’s: “booze, boys, boobs, and backstabbing.” The fresh-faced pledges look panicked as Jean-Michel threatens expulsion from the sisterhood unless she is satisfied with the pledges’ partying activities, but that sense of panic fades as the party gets going, and we’re distracted by the first few bars of the final number.
To start, everyone from the cast drunkenly stumbles around onstage before springing into song as the music picks up. Just as with the last big number, the message of this tune becomes clear once we reach the chorus: “we’ll be leaders tomorrow, shitfaced tonight!” As the song progresses, the partying habits of different students are highlighted and their potential futures are examined. The nosy sorority pledge-manager will become the Head of Homeland Security, the stoner will ironically become the head of the FDA, and the guy doing lines of cocaine in the bathroom will (maybe not so surprisingly) become a Wall Street banker “with a crippling sex addiction.” With this song, the distinction between Columbia’s weekend debauchery (including getting “shitfaced,” “blacked out,” “CAVA’ed,” and “fucked up”) and the opportunity that we have to be “leaders tomorrow” is pretty stark.
Once the Beta party wrapped up and the music ended, the preview came to a close with a short cliffhanger (styled like the opening of a Twilight Zone episode), and we were reminded by the entire cast to attend the full Varsity Show on April 29th, April 30th, and May 1st.
Considering the hype that surrounds Veesh and the legacy that the 122nd Varsity Show is attempting to uphold, this preview was merely good, not great. The scenes definitely touched upon issues that are central to the “Columbia experience” of 2015-2016 (the sorority and fraternity scandals, the nightlife of Columbia and Morningside Heights, and the ongoing debate around CC), but some of the content seemed to lack the intense sarcastic punch that so many of us have come to expect from the Varsity Show. That’s not to say the jokes weren’t funny, but the sarcasm was definitely less scathing than it easily could have been. If the goal was to satirize and lampoon Columbia, this selection of songs felt rather tame.
That being said, the commanding performances of a few cast members deserve recognition. Emma Smith, BC ‘19, and John Fisher, CC ‘16, do a wonderful job portraying the personas of stuffy and pretentious alumni-parents, forcing the audience to cringe violently at each and every utterance of “legacy” and “well, back in our day.” Henrietta Steventon, CC ‘18, was particularly convincing in her role as the heavily intoxicated and frequently foul-mouthed CC professor, and her stellar comedic timing was put on display as she quipped her potential to be a “leader tomorrow” after miming fellatio on a student during the final number.
From the technical side of the things, the show had its ups and downs as well. The music was Broadway-esque; Jake Chapman, CC ‘16, and Sofia Geck, BC ‘17, were sublime on the piano/keyboard, and James Steiner, CC ‘16, and Robert Fernandez, CC ‘16, on drums and bass, respectively, were similarly solid in their performance. Though the accompaniment was consistent in quality throughout, the movement on stage and choreography often failed to maintain the same standard. Scenes that attempted coordinated movement by multiple (i.e. more than three) cast members often felt clumsy in their execution, and ‘drunkenly stumbling’ during the scene at Beta looked more like awkward shuffling. However, seeing as we’re still two months out from the first full performance, it’s not unreasonable to give the benefit of the doubt here. After all, this is an early peek at what is still an ever-changing, (hopefully) ever-improving piece of musical theatre.
In this end, though, the 122nd Varsity Show preview served its purpose: the semi-formed plotline was vague enough to be enticing, and the jokes were satirical enough to give us all a good laugh at the ridiculousness that is life at Columbia. While I’ll maintain that the preview was only good, not great, I’m betting on the fact that the show’s writers Anika Benkov, CC ‘16, and Michael Rodriguez, CC ‘16, have something up their collective sleeve for the full show. If this preview was only a teaser, the possibility of more intense wit and sarcasm from the Varsity Show is something to which I’m looking forward come April 29th.
Poster courtesy of The Varsity Show on Facebook
Photos courtesy of Lila Etter