Bwog attended the Saturday evening performance of Transfer of Power, the 129th Annual Varsity Show. This year’s production was directed by Jackie Balestrieri (BC ’24), written by Julian Gerber (CC ’24) and Katy Haden (CC ’23), and produced by Amalia Garcia (BC ’23) and Abby Svelan (BC ’25), with lyrics by Ava Roberts (CC ’25). The production was choreographed by Kambi Gathesha (GS ’24), with music composed by Malcolm Toleno (CC ’23). The technical director was Alex Malamud (BC ’24), and the stage manager was Emily Martin (CC ’23).

The Varsity Show, Columbia’s oldest performing arts tradition, is dedicated to “both celebrating and satirizing life at Columbia,” according to its website. Finding the balance between these two purposes can be difficult—there’s much to mock about Columbia, but ending on a note of school spirit shouldn’t feel forced or unearned. The eternal unpopularity of the university’s administration provides a useful avenue to solve this issue. Thus, this is the third year in a row out of my three years here that I’ve seen a Varsity Show where the plot revolves around an evil scheme hatched by administrators that magnifies and distorts the students’ suffering—and the second in three years where one of these administrators is University Registrar Barry Kane. 

However, though the plot of V129 may have followed a familiar formula, it was certainly well-executed; it seems they’ve got it down to a science. This year’s show, Transfer of Power, opened by establishing two different pairs of students. We meet Rachel (Jaeden Riley Juarez, CC ’25) and Joan (Ariana Neal, CC ’26), a couple living together in their senior year, whose relationship seems slightly threatened by the fact that Rachel idolizes her math professor, Michael Thaddeus (Tyler Zwick, CC ’26) and his ability to “change the world through math,” which is Rachel’s interpretation of Thaddeus’ role in the US News scandal. We are also introduced to Damien Dartmouth (Vincent Snyder, CC ’24) and Wilder (Casey Rogerson, CC ’24), who both are misfits, though in very different ways. Damien is set on convincing his mother (Tatiana Santos Mroczek, BC ’25) that he shouldn’t have to transfer to the school his family traditionally attends (guess which). Wilder, on the other hand, accidentally applied to the wrong school—he intended to attend Columbia College of Missouri. After a brief meeting with RA Nola (short for Granola, played by Anja Vasa, BC ’25), Wilder is instantly in love, but Damien quickly advises him that if he hopes to have a chance with Nola, he’ll probably need to be “more Columbia.” This sparks the song “Him,” where Wilder laments that he’ll never be a Columbia man, and Rachel laments that she’ll never be Michael Thaddeus. 

Rachel then decides to take matters in her own hands, following in Thaddeus’ footsteps by exposing a scandal at Columbia. She documents evidence of students cheating on assignments, resulting in an expose in the New York Times. This provides fodder to the administrators, a group including Board of Trustees co-chair (and Bain executive) Jonathan Lavine (Tommy Doyle, GS ’24), ancient alum Mr. Noco (Filip Przybycien, CC ’24), and yes, Registrar Barry Kane (Kieran Lomboy, CC ’26). This ragtag group concocts a plan: since students are cheating via technology (yes, ChatGPT is mentioned), the admin will cut off the power to Columbia’s campus. The final stage of their evil plan is the SWIM test—that’s “Students Without Internet Mechanisms”—an exam that will require students to retake and improve on every single exam and assignment they’ve ever had at Columbia. The SWIM test is scheduled on the same day as Bacchanal. Needless to say, the students are not thrilled, especially not with Rachel. The penultimate song of Act One is “Ferris Pizza in Your Face,” delivered by the disgruntled student body to Rachel.

In Act Two, Columbia students are trying to get by without electricity. Announcements are delivered via Town Crier (Eleanor Babwin, BC ’24), and students are hopelessly cramming for the SWIM test. Damien’s efforts to help Wilder impress Nola in Act One didn’t quite succeed, but in the post-electric Columbia landscape, Wilder’s hands-on knowledge proves to be quite useful. Ultimately, he makes one last attempt to woo Nola, who is interested in sustainable development and wants to break away from the family business (ExxonMobil). On Law Bridge, he shows her how to plant soybeans, to help her prepare for her summer internship in the Galapagos building lizard habitation. This tactic finally succeeds. Meanwhile, the Bacchanal committee decides to plan a “Bacchaball” for the day of the SWIM test, and students collectively agree to boycott the test and party instead. Joan and Rachel’s relationship issues are resolved when Rachel is finally convinced to rectify what she’s done by breaking into Thaddeus’ office, stealing his contact at the New York Times, and getting them to report on the Bacchaball. This expose humiliates the Board of Trustees, and Barry Kane, who really misses getting to send out his all-caps emails, is in support of turning the electricity back on. Dean Leslie Grinage (Hannah Carter, BC ’26) reconnects the power, represented with a giant prop outlet. The show ends with the rousing number “Lights Up,” and Columbia returns to the modern era, unified by the power of community, Bacchanal, and misplaced Midwestern students. 

So much of what made Transfer of Power an enjoyable show can’t be encapsulated in the plot summary. To reference V128, when it comes to making the Varsity Show great, the devil’s in the details. The show was packed with hilarious vignettes, such as the random appearance of Ariana Grande (Vasa), here to say “yuh” and get Chef Don’s pizza sauce stained on her overlong sweater sleeves. Another hilarious moment was a French professor’s (Paul Hanna, CC ’23) post-blackout attempt to act out a film he was intending to screen in class. Every scene had some memorable one-liners—my favorite was Damien’s “Mom, those weren’t valets—that was the Kingsmen a capella group.” Bwog also appreciated a professor’s response to a student at the start-of-term notifying him of upcoming religious holidays: “You’re Jewish… see you in November,” and retired dancer Jasper (Nick Meyers, CC ’24) declaring that he hasn’t had this much fun “since doing poppers with Frankie Jonas at the GS Gala!” Protesting students responded to the appearance of a well-meaning Dean Grinage with an affected and elaborate cry of “administration infiltration,” with an accompanying dance move. One of the funniest visual gags was Jonathan Lavine’s removal of his Patagonia sweater vest to reveal another Patagonia sweater vest underneath.

The show-stealing cameo came from Minouche Shafik (Shania Pahuja, BC ’24), dressed in a full ball gown, whose appearance is brief due to the underwhelming reception she meets at Columbia. Another highlight was the beginning of the second act, featuring Rogerson’s brief reprisal of his role in last year’s V-show as PrezBo: he and PrezBei lounge in the “White Lotus resort” and maliciously chuckle about having enough money saved for retirement. At the Saturday matinee, the real Beilock appeared in this scene as a waiter. 

It was ultimately the cast’s awe-inspiring talent that kept the show buoyant and brimming with joy throughout the runtime. The production faced audio difficulties—which has been an issue at every show I’ve seen in the Roone Arledge auditorium—meaning that the singers had to sing clearly and loudly to be heard. Luckily, the performers were up for the challenge. Especially entertaining was Rogerson as Wilder. Though it sometimes felt that the production was stereotyping people from “the country” or the Midwest, Rogerson subverted this by committing to a portrayal of Wilder as earnest and multifaceted—he’s unapologetically Missourian, but wants to fit into Columbia and win Nola’s heart without compromising.

Juarez also gave an impeccable performance as Rachel, and it’s worth noting that her voice was remarkably clear and strong. Babwin as the Town Crier was a Bwog favorite, and Craig Cosentino (CC ’25) was flawlessly macho as Chef Don. Lomboy’s performance as Barry Kane made the reprisal of the Registrar character more than worth it. Meyers as Jasper had some of the best one-liners, and Carter’s portrayal of Dean Grinage as refreshingly sympathetic to students garnered a load of applause. Michael Thaddeus, in Zwick’s portrayal, was a bizarre genius with an apparent penchant for rap. This portrayal may bear no relation to how the man actually is in real life, but it was certainly quite funny. Also, knowing (from having seen KCST’s Hamlet) that Przybycien, who played the ancient, shuffling Mr. Noco, is a talented dancer and acrobat had me waiting on the edge of my seat for the inevitable payoff. It came in the form of Mr. Noco doing an unexpected backflip before recommitting to a career on Broadway. The audience went wild.

Though the audience was certainly made to appreciate the talents of each performer, the influx of characters—combined with the frequent inaudibility of lyrics—meant that the show simply became hard to follow by a certain point. Compared to last year’s show (and comparison is inevitable with an annual tradition), the administration’s motives for creating a drastic change in student life were much less fleshed out (and less funny). Additionally, certain plots seemed central, but then stopped being developed midway through the show, such as Damien Dartmouth’s struggle to convince his mother he doesn’t have to transfer. Rachel and Joan’s relationship was established right at the beginning of the show, but took a backseat for most of the runtime until the two were granted a duet as the show’s penultimate song.

Wilder and Nola’s relationship was more of a main plot, but the resolution to their story didn’t make much sense: Wilder says to Nola, “You were the first person here who saw me for me,” and we in the audience were confused—Nola rejects and misinterprets Wilder for the whole show up until that point. One Bwog Texan also wanted to point out that it didn’t quite make sense for a Missourian character to identify with the Texas Longhorn breed of cow. The Bacchanal-planning plot took over the second act of the show, but was only briefly alluded to in the first act. It also seemed that Professor Thaddeus was going to be a more prominent character in the show than he ended up being (though maybe that’s a relief, given the fact that he is a real person and not an administrator). Ultimately, an incredibly strong first act was undermined by a second act that didn’t quite align with the plotlines and interests put forward at the start. 

Many songs stood out as being clever and catchy, such as the opening number “Eighteen,” which contrasted (you guessed it) Columbia’s new US News ranking with the age of a Columbia freshman. “Lights Out” was gloriously cold-blooded, as the administration declared “Lights out on those entitled bitches!” while turning off the power. “Join Us,” the number representing the career fair’s efforts to recruit Columbia students, had standout lyrics and a great use of red lighting to really bring home the rock vibes. However, other songs began to sound similar to each other. Wilder and Nola’s duet “The Bridge of Love” (which, as it turns out, is Law Bridge), was thematically similar to last year’s love duet “The Gust of Love” (referring to Butler wind tunnels)—this was probably intended to be a callback, but it mainly felt repetitive. The choreography was also fairly simple; the stage cleverly incorporated risers to represent Low Steps, and the multiple levels ultimately felt under-utilized.

There was a lot going on in Transfer of Power. One could even say there was too much going on. At a two and a half-hour runtime, surely there was room for a plotline to be cut. But though some attendees felt that nearly three hours is simply too long for a student production, I can’t bring myself to agree. Three hours as full of joy and creativity as the Varsity Show promises to be is well worth it to me. Thus, V129’s explosion of content and creation was at times overwhelming, but it was all in service of enriching the Columbia student experience—both through its portrayal of it and through its status as Columbia tradition in its own right.

Varsity Show is always intended to be a celebration of the university: as director Jackie Balestrieri wrote in an email interview with Bwog, the creative team’s vision was “to create a high quality piece of comedic musical theater that thoroughly represents the undergraduate students of Columbia University, and […] to uplift audience members, students and non-affiliates alike.” The show was certainly thorough both in length and in complexity, and despite its comedic distortions, a specific and aspirational representation of Columbia University definitely shone through. The Varsity Show sets its own example and uplifts by doing: by providing Columbia students in the midst of cramming for their finals an unendingly musical, unapologetically silly, and unfailingly fun couple of hours. 

Editor’s note: Bwog’s Editor-in-Chief Kyle Murray was the Sound Designer for V129, Deputy Arts Editor Marino Bubba played percussion in the pit, and former Tech Editor Solomia Dzhaman was Assistant Lighting Designer. None were involved with the writing of this review.

Photo via Elias Reville