The 127th Annual Varsity Show: Campus in the Clouds premiered on May 7. Written by Wesley Schmidt (CC ’22) and Gigi Russo (BC ’22), directed by Christian Palomares (CC ’22), and produced by Mario Garcia (CC ’21) and Julia Hyman (BC ’22), the show is now available to stream on YouTube.
More than a year ago, student existence at Columbia University changed dramatically. It was a time of upheaval, fear, and confusion, and the dust settled onto a spring semester that resembled no other before it, as students relocated to their hometowns and began to take their classes online. Now, fourteen months have passed, and the initial shock and sensation of acute loss have settled into a general sense of bored depression. The sun has just set on the second pandemic spring semester at Columbia, and quarantine college is no longer a novelty but the way of things. Although it may feel that we remember the time before Covid like it was yesterday, the pages of the academic calendar have turned; those who were high school students last spring find themselves about to be sophomores, and those who were juniors last spring are now college graduates. Against this backdrop, the creators of the 127th Varsity Show have produced a show that speaks, with humor and optimism, to the weird amalgam of grief for the past and apprehension about the future that characterizes our present moment.
Varsity Show 127: Campus in the Clouds was directed by Christian Palomares, CC ’22 and produced by Mario Garcia, CC ’21 and Julia Hyman, BC ’22. After opening with a jazzy montage of New York and Columbia’s campus, the show launches into an upbeat number called “Stable Connection,” establishing the setting of the show as the remote learning environment that most Columbia students have been experiencing in the past year. This scene makes good use of its digital format to comment on that digital format–watching from your own laptop as several actors in split-screen use their laptops is deliciously ironic. The frenetic editing matches the experience of being a student during the age of virtual college.
After this introductory song concludes, we are introduced to our two main characters, Eve (Lindsey Belisle, BC ’23), a Columbia senior who feels disillusioned with college and is gloomily awaiting graduation, and Dani (Anna Kasun, CC ’24), a Barnard first-year who has been taking classes from her rural home, longing for New York City. In alternating shots, Dani complains to her parents and Eve complains to her friends, Rory (Joseph Kurtz, SEAS ’21) and Rebecca (Daisy Byers, BC ’24). The two then break into a song, “Time to Go,” a genuinely relatable anthem for pandemic restlessness.
The rest of the show follows the evil plot of the registrars, Barry Kane (Callum Kiser, CC ’21) and Jennifer Simmons (Jackie Balestrieri, BC ’24), who manipulate Dani, a coding prodigy, into coding a virus that sucks the entire Columbia student population into the online world. They prey on Dani’s insecurity about making friends at Columbia, assuring her that everyone will be happier in the virtual space than on campus. Kiser and Balestrieri are hilarious as the kinky, obnoxious registrars, and their performance of “Who Needs Class?”, a classically campy musical theater number, is a highlight of the show.
After the Columbia population is sucked into “the clouds” during already-hectic class registration, Eve sets out with Rory and Rebecca to find the hacker responsible for the virus. In doing so, they traverse various online platforms with a sizable Columbia community, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Tinder, and CourseWorks. We encounter several classic Columbia archetypes here: the beleaguered TA Amy (Ketsia Zinga, SEAS ’21), the not-so-humble internship awardee (Jackson Davis, CC ’22), and Interim Provost Ira Katznelson (Paul Hanna, CC ’23). Dani discovers that the registrars lied to her and that the Columbia students are not, in fact, pleased about their forced transition to the virtual sphere. Frightened of further exclusion, she vents through Columbia Confessions, which allows Eve, Rory, and Rebecca to invite her to meet with them.
Despite all the negativity that characterizes the first stretch of the show, Campus in the Clouds takes a decidedly wholesome turn as Dani opens up to Eve and her friends, who in turn serenade her with a message of inclusion, telling her “New York already loves you / I know because I was you.” The meaning extends out toward the audience—essentially, the writers of the Varsity Show are aware that a good portion of their viewership are first-years who have no idea whether their miserable experience of the past two semesters will turn out to be representative of their entire Columbia career. Campus in the Clouds is a gift to those students—a determinedly cheerful perspective on the future. “You’ll always be part of our lion pride,” Eve and her friends sing, and though they’re talking to Dani, viewers feel themselves in her shoes.
It’s a heartwarming message, only slightly undermined by the fact that the rest of the show focuses on negative stereotypes of the community. The abrupt shift from consternation to contentedness is a bit unbelievable, but it’s one that we want to believe in. Despite the divisions in the Columbia community in the past year—grad strikes, Facebook arguments, political rifts, Covid-safety disagreements—perhaps healing is right around the corner, as soon as we begin to work together. The musical asks us to ponder how we can facilitate a change in campus culture. So many Columbia students walk around feeling alone, afraid they will never find true community. But as Eve declares, “as long as I have you guys, I have Columbia.” Finding happiness in college, whether virtual or in-person, means finding people who care about you and finding people you care for.
Under Palomares’ direction, Campus in the Clouds was engaging and a joy to watch. Setting a large part of the show literally “online” allowed for creative editing choices that personified platforms we’re all too familiar with, such as Tinder and Twitter. The LinkedIn sequence in particular was excellent, as students humble-bragged about their achievements from within blue boxes on a blue background that mirrored the site’s interface. By leaning into the concept of digital theater, the production team was able to create a show that feels completely of-the-moment, a video that Columbia students will be able to play for their grandkids and say “yep, that’s what Zoom college was like!”
The acting was uniformly strong, as the actors embodied characters that felt already familiar. Kasun’s Dani in particular was impressive; her portrayal of a wide-eyed first-year who still has faith in the good intentions of the administration was truly sympathetic.
Composer Evan Smolin (CC ’23) and lyricist Abby Rooney (CC ’22) were responsible for a strong batch of songs with catchy, contagious melodies and lyrics that balanced insight into the Columbia experience with humorous references. Combined with the engaging editing, some performances felt like music videos in their own right, an unexpected bonus of the digital format.
Ultimately, the 127th Varsity Show admirably rose to the challenge of capturing the Columbia experience in a year that disrupted the typical Columbia rhythm. The characters of Dani and Eve felt very real; as someone who related to Dani and felt represented by her, I can just as well imagine that many students watching the show related to Eve. Whether you are just entering or just leaving the Columbia community, Campus in the Clouds wants you to know that you’ll always be part of the lion pride. It’s an unexpectedly heartwarming message coming right when we need it.
The 127th Varsity Show is available to stream for free on YouTube.
Editor’s Note: Arts Editor Maya Campbell was the publicity manager and Staff Writer Mary Qiu was the assistant director for the 127th Varsity Show. In addition, Deputy Arts Editor Adam Kluge was an actor in the 126th Varsity Show. None of these staffers were involved in any part of the drafting or editing process for this review.
“Braggadocious,” screenshot via Veesh YouTube