In the 50th anniversary year of the 1968 Columbia protests, the Morningside campus has been ablaze with commotion, with the GWC-UAW graduate workers strike, the Barnard SGA referendum on divestment, and white supremacist Mike Cernovich’s invitation from CUCR to speak on campus. However, despite the plethora of provocative inspiration, this year’s Varsity Show opted instead to highlight cliché, showcasing the stereotypical Columbia experience rather than topicality.
The 124th iteration of the Varsity Show runs from April 27-29 in Roone Arledge Auditorium. The show, Columbia’s oldest performing arts tradition, is an annual, original student-written comedy-musical. This year’s show, titled “Lights Out on Broadway,” was written by Hayley Tillett, BC ’19, with music and lyrics by Simon Broucke, CC ’19, and directed by Hazel Rosenblum-Sellers, CC ’19.
The show’s production, a highly anticipated and extremely secretive affair, was disrupted by abrupt changes to this year’s creative team. Director Rosenblum-Sellers remarked on these unprecedented adjustments, stating how members of the team were forced to take on additional, often overburdening responsibilities; this creative turbulence was reflected intermittently.
The 124th iteration of the Varsity Show follows a fictitious Columbia College Student Council election, with candidates Chelsea Shaw (Genevieve Joers, CC ’20) and William Schermerhorn VIII (Talmage Wise, CC ’18) (yes, Schermerhorn as in the building) battling it out for the presidential role.
Escalating preposterous campaign promises are enacted, generating campus tumult: The power in residences goes out, RAs are dismissed, and the campus descends into turmoil. The coupling of a wealthy, legacy-oriented egotist and a feminist, overqualified realist drew clear parallels to 2016’s controversial election; as stated in the production’s director’s note, this year’s Varsity Show decidedly wanted to be political. However, a year and a half post-election, the country and Columbia have entered different sorts of political turbulence, so the revisit to this storyline seemed tired.
The leading cast members gave dynamic, expressively humorous performances despite the often lackluster narrative. The respective chemistries between the battling foes Joers and Wise or bashful romantics Leah (Sophia Houdaigui, BC ’21) and Zach (Joel Meyers, CC ’21), their relationship compared to that of Romeo and Juliet, or jokingly Columbia students and solid mental health, were vibrantly accentuated by their dual charisma and expressive enthusiasm—especially paired with Broucke’s spirited orchestrations, like during standout number, the cheekily pun laden “Ferris Pasta-bilities”. The paramount perform, however, was Rachel Greenfeld, BC ’19, animated both figuratively and literally as the Alma Mater. Flanked at one point by a flock of singing owls, she repeatedly delivered overtly and comically physicalized performances, an outstanding presence whenever onstage.
Despite spirited performances, the cast grappled with a stereotypical storyline; with some exceptions, the narrative could be easily placeable anytime within the last five years. Ensemble members themselves stated their apathy toward the chosen topic of focus—student government elections—with a chorus of “no one cares!” directed at the canvassing candidates, then probing the audience to question why they themselves must care. Songs like “Blackout” revisited a prevalent gag that students use alcohol to drown their existential fears (which, truthfully, is more concerning than comedic). Elements of design were further lacking, with repeated distracting microphone feedback issues and a set backdrop made from an amateurishly patched tapestry of images: a cartoonish, beady-eyed PrezBo, a subway map, and a Barnard bear.
Where the narrative truly excelled was when it concentrated on specificity—pointed, particular moments packing the most resounding punches. From the ridiculousness of off-kilter Lerner tables, a world envisioned where Orchesis becomes no longer quite so poor(chesis), and an appearance from a certain infamous Ivy League Snap story bottle flipper, often seen lobbing bottles towards trash cans on college walk, to the recent impeachment of the SEAS student council president, the Varsity Show garnered its strongest responses when it stayed true to its purpose: a comedic depiction of relevant on-campus events from the past year. Even a scene in EC lobby, in which two Barnard students are pestered with Sphynx-like riddles for the elusive opportunity to enter the dorm, was playfully resonant. This was juxtaposed with the less-eliciting sorrowful ballads, too personal to be accessible and impeding playful, quick pacing.
The Varsity Show was certainly political, but political in the most diluted of senses. By approaching the concept in a stereotypical manner, opportunities were lost to highlight the electric present Columbia community in a more edged, daring manner. Perhaps this outcome was due to the unexpected disorder in the creative team. However, with delightful leading performances and lighthearted musical accompaniment, the show still managed to maintain an amiable tone, a definite reprise during the stress-laden semester’s end.