Our Arts Editor attended the 122nd Annual Varsity Show on opening night. Here is Bwog’s review of the production, as well as Moïse’s comments on the show.
Last night marked the opening night of a three day run of the 122nd Annual Varsity Show, co-written by Anika Benkov (CC ’16) and Michael Rodriguez (CC ’16) and directed by Jonah Weinsten (CC ’16), with lyrics and composition by Jake Chapman (CC ’16) and Sofia Geck (BC ’17). At the start of the performance, the curtains slowly opened to reveal four portraits of Columbia’s “founding fathers” Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Robert Livingston, and King George II discussing their accomplishments and achievements while disparaging the current state of Columbia. The final lines delivered by the founding fathers in the first narrative scene give an ominous warning about the show to follow: “This is a tale of tradition / at the school of white and blue / so watch if you dare, but just beware: / the past isn’t done with you!”
Following this warning and narrative opening, we’re immediately introduced to the main character, Jenny Park (April Cho, CC ’17), a first generation sophomore attempting to find some sense of belonging at Columbia. Even as she struggles to maintain order at her work-study job in Hartley, she expresses dreams of greatness and a desire to be like the notorious Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (“Notorious”).
The next number, “Make Columbia Great Again,” introduces the main plot line of V122. As Deantini reveals to Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm, played by Emma Smith (BC ’19), Columbia has been accepting the wrong students for over four years. The only backup record of the rightfully accepted students is stored in an inaccessible floppy disk, which Kromm unsuccessfully tries to ram into a modern computer. However, King George II (John Fisher, CC ’16) returns to offer his help; as the “founder” of Columbia’s charter, the king apparently has some intuition about which students truly belong at “his University.” Dean Kromm accepts King George’s offer of assistance before helping King George escape the confines of his portrait on the wall, setting off together to lead a witch hunt for the fraudulent students at Columbia.
The rest of the show follows the progression of King George’s plan to purge Columbia of unworthy students. However, after seeing the king ignore the actual list of correct students, we quickly learn that he simply wants to keep the entitled, aristocratic students, the ones that he deems to “belong” at Columbia. As the king starts putting students in the stocks to await trial for expulsion, Jenny accidentally gets involved with a Barnard revolution against the king while getting romantically involved with its leader, Rose Greenberg (Jet Harper, BC ’19). Trouble ensues when the King hires Jenny as his guard, leading her commitment to the cause against the king to conflict with her obligation and desperate want to stay at Columbia as a first-generation student. This conflict of interest dominates the second act, as Cristen Kromm also turns against the king in an attempt to stop his reign over Columbia’s undergraduate students.
In terms of its overall impact, this year’s Varsity Show was ambitious in its attempt to cover a variety of topics central to student life at Columbia. Themes in V122 include dissatisfaction with Columbia, per usual, but this year, it was addressed in a more personal sense related to the feeling of ‘not belonging.’ Most students can empathize with Jenny for feeling out of place at Columbia; imposter syndrome and the feeling of not being ‘good enough for Columbia’ hit incredibly close to home for the majority of students here at the University. In this regard, the plot of the show struck a massive emotional chord in how it addressed that feeling of being unsure about one’s place at Columbia. On a related note, the production also addressed the daily struggles of being a student with a work-study job and the feeling of isolation that can come with being a first-generation student at an Ivy League school (especially in New York). Normalizing that struggle by putting it front and center in the production (e.g. Jenny must decide between arresting Rose, her crush, or risking her place at Columbia, a choice of personal satisfaction at the cost of security) definitely made this year’s Varsity Show feel more broadly purposeful than former years’ productions. Similarly, the show addressed the idea that it’s acceptable to feel wholly dissatisfied with Columbia as a school and an institution; Allen Ginsberg, Zora Neale Hurston, and Barack Obama all appeared to briefly comment on how they each hated their time at the university. For students who feel isolated at or unfulfilled with Columbia, this Varsity Show is definitely a show designed to at least address some of those feelings in a constructive, thoughtful way.
That being said, the ambitions for the Varsity Show’s themes and message may have proved too lofty. While all of the above topics were addressed in the show, very few of the ideas were fully fleshed out over the course of the entire show. Jenny’s identity as a first-generation student was handled incredibly well and appropriately, but it seemed only to ever come up at critical points during the show rather than staying a constant part of her character. This neglect to fully form the theme could be attributed to the nature of the Varsity Show and how it has to cover an entire year’s worth of material, but it really speaks to the writers and director attempting to do too much and spreading the focus of the show a bit too broad to truly cover any single issue.
Related to this note on writing, the humor and jokes of the show fell victim to the same problem of focus and direction. Because the central theme of the show was so removed from humorous and topical issues on campus (Greek Life, for example, was largely absent from the show), the only bits of topical humor felt incredibly quippy and predominantly consisted of one-liners that, while funny, still seemed like afterthoughts. Just as the general plot of the Varsity Show attempted greatness and fell flat, the line-by-line writing similarly didn’t have enough humorous cohesion to make an impact on the viewer. As a result of the lack of broad, sustained humor, some of the funniest moments of the show came from simple throwaway lines that just so happened to be delivered perfectly by the actors. In this regard, both Xander Browne, CC ’19, and Henrietta Steventon, CC ’18, stand out among the ensemble for flawless stage presence and their skill at turning relatively unimpressive lines into riotously funny moments of levity. Browne’s impersonations of Jonah Reider (of Pith fame) and Barack Obama were stellar, and Steventon’s role as the ridiculously drunk Professor Wilkenson was absolutely iconic; unfortunately, both of these ensemble members (and their respective, unique roles) felt thoroughly underutilized.
Still, Xander Browne deserved much better than he received onstage. His microphone, as well as a few other cast members’, faded in and out during the middle of lines. These technical issues with the microphones were frequent and thoroughly disruptive, forcing actors to shout their lines and compensate to be heard. As a result of these microphones issues, the audience missed whole lines and jokes, which significantly detracted from any enjoyment derived from the show. Additionally, the technical side of the production got progressively worse over the course of the show. Lights stayed on during multiple transitions and props/set elements were put in place too early or removed too late; what started out as just little mistakes turned into very noticeable problems, culminating with King George’s “Make Columbia Great Again” banner getting tangled as it was displayed during one of the final scenes of the show.
While I was incredibly disappointed with the lack of general direction, the largely flat writing, and the technical elements of the production, I have nothing but high praise for two particular performers: April Cho (CC ’17) and Emma Smith (BC ’19), playing Jenny Park and Cristen Kromm respectively. Cho’s portrayal of the anxious, timid, yet determined Jenny was thoroughly convincing and nothing but fantastic, and her singing was some of the best that I’ve heard at Columbia. From my perspective, this was a difficult role to play with the kind of conviction and purpose that Cho managed to maintain, and walking out of the theater, Cho’s individual performance was easily the absolute highlight of the show. For Smith, her performance as Dean Kromm was impressive for its subtlety and stage presence. It is incredibly easy for that kind of impersonating-role to devolve into an overblown caricature of the individual, stripping all nuance from the role, yet Smith managed to keep the role interesting and funny without resorting to that form of ridiculous parody. Her mannerisms and movements matched Kromm’s perfectly, and Smith was thoroughly purposeful in how she conducted the character. Both Cho’s and Smith’s stage presence was also distinctly impressive, and my favorite scene and number from the show featured both actresses singing and challenging each other to take a stand against King George (“Defying Patriarchy”). Cho and Smith clearly dedicated themselves to their roles, and that level of dedication was evident in the quality of their stand out performances.
This year’s Varsity Show is worth attending if you have a ticket, but for those who neglected to purchase ahead of time, don’t feel disappointed that you’re missing out. The show was an enjoyable and fun way to spend a few hours, but the unfulfilled ambitions, expectations, and ‘what-could-have-beens’ of the production detracted from any real poignancy and relevance that the Varsity Show was attempting to establish. The show was merely good, but really, we expected more from an institution and tradition such as the Varsity Show.
Note: The author claims the opinions put forth in this review as his own, but the opinions of the majority of Bwog staff were taken into account during the writing of this review.
All photos courtesy of Betsy Ladyzhets