Updated: April 30, 6:47 a.m.
The Varsity Show exists at Columbia as a historical record. Irreverent though it may be, it takes the school year’s issues, quirks, trivialities, major scandals, and archetypes, and rolls them into a single, dense wallop of community culture. History is written by administrators. What really happened is written by college kids. It seems unlikely, for instance, that James Valentini will ever be remembered by his more popular moniker, Deantini, in University records, but so long as the DVD copy of this Varsity Show endures, Deantini will also be associated with awkward webisodes and a constant effort to keep his public persona hip.
The 118th reincarnation of the V-Show portrays the struggle of classics/philosophy major Phineas, played by Sean Walsh, CC ’14, to defend the Core Curriculum against the corporate reform efforts of Center for Career Education Director Niamh (pronounced “Neeeeev”) O’Brien, played by Rebekah Lowin, CC ’14. O’Brien, in an effort to enhance post-graduation employment rates, institutes the “Corporate Core.” To humanities geeks like Phineas, the regimen of classes on sleaze and business protocol is intolerable, and he forms a protest coalition under the banner of Alma’s Army.
Thematically, the show does a good job of touching on the hot-button issues of the past year, such as Occupy Wall Street and the McKinsey report, without resorting to the tired 99 percent jokes that killed every Halloween party. The issues are nicely united as part of the main conflict, without getting lost in the subplots that have plagued V-Shows past.
Behind this all is a strong orchestra that plays out the catchy, tight songs with skill. Numbers like “Another Epic Day!” and “The One Percent” stand out, and Bwog-riffing “That’s How I Troll” is a brilliant display of musical force mixed with comedy (“Trolling in the Deep,” anyone?) and striking relevance. Creatively, classic musical-theater standby (read: unusual but perfect choice) Dante brings the (disco) inferno to Phineas’s Wien single with “Another Epic Night.”
The artistic design team also deserves a round of applause for an immaculate set. Art director Stephen Davan, CC ’12, reproduced a striking exterior of Hamilton Hall that seamlessly transitioned to scenes along Broadway and to Mel’s Burger Bar.
But the set couldn’t carry the weight of the show, which sags at times, usually under the heaviness of generic and bland Columbia tropes that have probably only sporadically been left out since V-Show 1. An emphasis on stereotypical conventions over authenticity distanced the performance a little: The earthy, dreamy Barnard girl (Eleanor Bray, BC ’14) and vapid CC girl (Jenny Singer, BC ’15) seemed more like token stereotypes than fully fleshed-out characters. The plot also retreated to overly familiar, somewhat gratuitous cliches: hookups “in the But”(ler stacks) and weepy girls blubbering outside of Koronet.
There are, though, the usual array of one-liners that zing with appalling freshness. It’s lines like, “Hey, did you know there’s a 15-story coffee shop near Pupin?” that ensure the show’s continued popularity among Columbians.
When the show was spot on, it’s spot on. Deantini, flawlessly executed by Gray Henry, CC ’14, is a highlight of the production as he breaks into a rap solo during “The One Percent” and makes uncanny chemistry puns.
Crafted with similar accuracy, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm of protagonist Phineas is laughably resonant in a community where optimism is often denigrated as foolish (but spoilers be damned, cynics may be surprised to find his idealism still intact come curtain call).
It’s bright spots like these that make weaknesses, like the character of Niamh O’Brien, such disappointments. Though Lowin has a voice that could rival an angel’s, the choice to make the main villain a semi-obscure campus figure is puzzling. Even with the hook of the CCE emails, O’Brien is certainly not someone who Columbia students think about on a regular basis. With her near-complete lack of public presence and background, it seems as if she were chosen simply to give the writers a blank check—not because she’s at all relevant to campus life.
Her limited relevance becomes only more limited, once one considers that not all students receive her emails. The jokes don’t hold up outside that context, and seem to be tenuously related to the school in general: The song “Poor Little Lass,” which discusses Niamh’s lost dreams after giving up Irish dancing, relies on an overused joke that further distances the audience from CU-related issues.
The focus on CC was necessary by virtue of the theme, “The Corporate Core.” Little mention is given to any of the other undergraduate institutions besides the Barnard representative and a regrettable, somewhat tasteless one-liner involving GS. SEAS disappeared from the face of the planet. Even the Barnard student, Claire, was undercut by the fact that her major, evolutionary biology, isn’t offered at her alma mater.
Because of this and other inconsistencies, the Barnard woman is never fully explored. While Phineas and Claire touch on the vexed CU-Barnard relationship in a scene set in Phineas’ Wien single—he tells Claire that she “wouldn’t understand” why it’s so important to preserve the Core—the issue never develops from there.
But on the whole, does Varsity Show accurately capture the events of the year? It does its job. Some moments fell flat, while others delighted. Conceptually, the plot hit home, yet, when executed, like an apparently atypical Barnardian, refused to go past second base. Still, the audience—the key critics–emerged amused, and the show managed to say what all of us at Columbia were thinking.
Jade Bonacolta, Rebeka Cohan, and Alison Herman contributed reporting.