Directed by Giuliana Russo (BC ‘22) and written by Harris Solomon (CC ‘22) and Nurasyl Shokeyev (CC ‘22), the 128th Annual Varsity Show returned to Roone Auditorium on April 29, April 30, and May 1.
For the production team and the audience alike, the pressure for this year’s Varsity Show to be good was high. The past two years saw Columbia’s famous tradition go online, and though those shows were entertaining and creative in their virtual medium, the Varsity Show, Columbia’s annual, entirely student-written and -produced musical, is fundamentally meant to be a live viewing experience. Clocking in at an almost three-hour runtime, the 128th Varsity Show was jam-packed from beginning to end with hilarity, emotion, and music. In short, it did not disappoint.
Well-Endowed, which played in Roone Auditorium on April 29, April 30, and May 1, was written by Harris Solomon (CC ‘22) and Nurasyl Shokeyev (CC ‘22), directed by Giuliana Russo (BC ‘22), and produced by Caroline Cassese (BC ‘22) and Grace Brown (BC ‘23). The many storylines were impressively balanced, incorporating relatable representations of student life, crowd-pleasing parodies of the administration, and amusing if slightly surprising cultural references (namely Squid Game and Hamilton, but references to The Dropout and the Will Smith Oscars slap were also in play). The Devil, played by Jackie Chu (BC ‘22), is released onto Columbia’s campus from her residence in the Avery basement as part of The Last Judgment painting during a stereotypically grim art history class taught by Professor Mortimer (Surya Buddharaju, CC ‘23) when the recognizably insufferable Columbia student Chett (Adam Kluge, CC ‘22) decides to play “Devil’s advocate” in defense of capitalist exploitation. While conferring with two sentient trees (Shania Pahuja, BC’24 and Olivia Cull, BC ‘24) on College Walk, the Devil learns that “the Devil’s in the details” when it comes to the suffering of Columbia students. The Devil, intent to bring chaos to campus, goes to the mansion of President Lee Bollinger (Casey Rogerson, CC ‘24), who is commiserating with his frustrated wife, Jean (Estee Dechtman, BC ‘22) about the struggles of being shunned by other Ivy League presidents. PrezBo makes a deal with the Devil: in order to get Columbia to the #1 spot on the US News ranking, he will decrease the number of students, removing all the failures and those who just don’t cut it. Havoc is then wreaked as the already struggling members of Professor Mortimer’s art seminar, working on a group project to address the question of “Why?”, try to avoid being unenrolled.
The premise may sound slightly convoluted and fantastical, but the show’s excellent pacing and direction and the talents of the cast kept the audience entirely engaged the whole way through. Other subplots included an attempted love affair between Columbia’s “saddest virgin,” Andy (Jackson Schwartz, CC ‘24) and Camille (Erin Hilgartner, CC ‘22), a “new, leftist, and French” Sciences Po dual degree student; the reappearance of the “missing Hamilton statue” as the ghost of Alexander Hamilton (Buddharaju), who speaks only in theatrical rap and insists to everyone that he is not Lin-Manuel Miranda; a rivalry between Provost Mary Boyce (Olivia Cull) and Jean Bollinger; and the veneration of Deantini, who made a guest appearance at the end of the show as a statue replacing Hamilton, signaling new horizons for student-administrative relations.
Starting at the Saturday matinee and thereafter, the role of Edith, the 86-year-old GS student who’s seen and done everything in the book, was played by Harris Solomon, who was utterly hilarious and managed to make holding a copy of the book seem less like a necessity and more like an optional part of Edith’s costuming. Hilgartner, who played Camille, was only recruited to the show a week before it went up, which made her impeccable performance extra impressive. The fact that these last-minute changes occurred and yet were executed so smoothly speaks to a lesson that the cast and crew of V128 learned over the past two years of doing Columbia theater in a virtual or semi-virtual capacity: adaptability is everything. In an email interview with Bwog, producer Grace Brown wrote: “I think doing virtual shows made me much more flexible and adaptable; theater on Zoom taught me to let go of things that I can’t control and move forward, a lesson very important in live theater as well.” The “move forward” attitude is evidently necessary in the world of post-pandemic theater, where, as much as we may wish it weren’t the case, the challenges of COVID-19 still exist and still manage to disrupt the process of putting together productions.
Speaking of COVID-19, the writers and producers of Well Endowed made the notable choice to sidestep focusing the show around the pandemic’s influence on Columbia. Last year’s show, Campus in the Clouds, was entirely about the challenges of virtual school, a choice that made sense given the show’s digital format. This year, with the return to a fully live and in-person Varsity Show, the message was clear: Columbia’s chaos is unrelated to COVID-19. Though there were occasional mentions of the struggles relating to “green passes,” most of the devilishly infuriating aspects of Columbia around which the show focused had nothing to do with the difficulties of the pandemic. This provided a perhaps paradoxically hopeful lesson about Columbia’s resilience. According to the producers, “something our team talked a lot about was not wanting to make a ‘COVID show,’ in the sense that it was important to not dwell on the pandemic and provide a couple hours of escape and entertainment while also being sure to acknowledge the immense difficulties many students have faced and continue to face as a result.” This mission was certainly well-accomplished; the show was not a “COVID” show by any means, though the influence of COVID-19 obviously influenced the show both content-wise and logistically.
As with Varsity Shows in the past, the writers had to walk a fine line between creating a relatable portrayal of Columbia’s issues with which students could commiserate and being overly negative and pessimistic about the experience of being a student at this institution. This year, the writers found an admirable solution to this issue in using the tool of the literal Devil to be able to exaggerate everything that’s currently wrong with Columbia, with the underlying message being: It’s not really always this bad. Additionally, focusing much of the critique on PrezBo and the administration meant that the show fell right in line with how many students on this campus already think, especially in light of campus-wide discussions of the use of Columbia’s endowment, undergraduate expansion, and the administration’s negotiations with the Student Workers of Columbia. The irreverent satire of PrezBo’s morals and marriage struck just the right balance between amusing and shocking. Rogerson’s portrayal of Bollinger was a joy to watch, and Dechtman as his long-suffering wife was a consistent scene stealer. One of the funniest numbers of the show came towards the start, as the two sing a lament to Columbia’s current #2 status on the U.S. News rankings: “Everybody wants to go to HYP [Harvard, Yale, Princeton]… so why not C?” Concentrating the satire of the school on the ambitions of the administrators was a clever way to avoid the potentially discouraging negativity of institutional critique during a buoyant musical.
The songs, composed by Jerry Zheng (CC ‘22) with lyrics by Jaeda Mendoza (SEAS ‘23), were spectacular, especially “The Gust of Love,” a duet between Camille and Andy sung in front of Butler. Andy’s “Sad Boy Lament,” set inside of Butler, was another highlight. Schwartz’s performance brought cohesion to his character’s storyline, which was one of the most intense in the show, as Andy is trained by PrezBo to become the next dean of Columbia College, a training which evidently involves bondage and torture.
Buddharaju’s versatility and talent consistently garnered the most laughs from the audience, especially during a segment where he contorted himself into a representation of all the statues on campus, including the infamous Uris curl. More than his statue impressions, however, when doing a Lin-Manuel Miranda impression as Alexander Hamilton, he was nothing short of brilliant—each line delivery hit the mark. The audience reaction to the shoehorning of the Hamilton reference was mixed. People seemed to think it was quite funny, although some Bwog staff members expressed after the performance that they were surprised that such a dated reference made it into a 2022 show. Overall, though, the consensus was that Buddharaju’s portrayal meant that the character was a valued addition.
Producer Caroline Cassese wrote in an email, “The Varsity Show is more than a piece of Columbia’s theater community, it is a part of Columbia tradition. This year, with so much of the student body having not been exposed to the Varsity Show, we aimed to bring that back to their attention.” With this goal in mind, the show was a definite success. After filing into the packed Roone Auditorium, receiving a playbill that was in itself a work of art thanks to the contributions of the talented staff at The Blue & White and The Federalist, and sitting down for an utterly engrossing three hours of Columbia-created and Columbia-centric content, it’s impossible to avoid the joyful feeling of being a part of such a thriving, dedicated, and talented community. Well Endowed was a gift to the Columbia community, and despite the downsides of campus life that were portrayed, the overall feeling one was left with was one of positivity and pride.
An administrative “meeting” via Grace Novarr