Arts and Entertainment | Theater

Rethinking the Core: The 118th Varsity Show amuses, but doesn't always go the extra mile

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.

arts@columbiaspectator.com

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pailierfige posted on

One of the most fun events that the large organization can do is a balloon release. If you want the thousands of balloons necessary for an attractive and artistic balloon release, give us a call. We will get the balloons to you personally to meet your deadline along with other needs.

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Anonymous posted on

for an article with 3 (or 6!) authors, the copy editing on this is atrocious and an embarrassment to the newspaper.

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Anonymous posted on

This review is really off. Varsity Show is supposed to be a community-building showcase of Columbia talent filled with funny one-liners and lighthearted stereotypes. Yes, Niamh O'Brien is no PrezBo, but people have been joking about how to pronounce her name for ages and the CCE is certainly "relevant."

Why were the two lead writers on this review - Charlotte and Lesley - a freshman and a sophomore transfer? No offense to freshmen or transfers at all, but neither has been here for more than a year. I think that's part of why this review isn't an accurate picture of the Columbia community's thoughts on the show.

Most Columbians thought this was the best Varsity Show in recent memory. Considering what Varsity Show is meant to be and do, it truly was.

Love,
A fellow Speccie

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Anonymous posted on

The review was conducted editorial style, through participation and input from the A&E staff collectively. Charlotte and Lesley were tasked with writing out how the arts staff as a whole (including the other arts associates, staffers, and editor) interpreted the Varsity Show. 

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Anonymous posted on

UM. You're kind of a dick. I don't understand why their graduation year and whether or not one of them is a transfer student is relevant. Disagree with their opinions, but don't question their ability to review a show.I thought it was good too, and I disagree a good bit with this review, but I don't blame the writers for having an opinion. Douche. 

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Anonymous posted on

Um doesn't even go here! 

(do you even go to this school?)

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Anonymous posted on

totally agree—and they both go to Barnard, so obviously they would find flaws with choosing Niahm O'Brien or not further exploring the Barnard woman or focusing too much on the Core. I found this show to be the best Vshow ive seen at my time here. It made me reflect on my entire Columbia experience, not just this year, without hitting me over the head with a "year at a glance" type plot. On top of that, the talent was incredible in each and every cast member, the direction was flawless, the music superb, the script tight, the set awe-inspiring. 

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Anonymous posted on

do a little light research... you might discover some things. like Lesley's CC, ya id.

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Anonymous posted on

Do you mean appealing freshness, not appalling freshness? 

"There are, though, the usual array of one-liners that zing with appalling freshness."

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Anonymous posted on

GSers receive the weekly useless CCE emails as well, although good on Spec for remembering the schools that were left out of an otherwise powerful show this year.

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Anonymous posted on

Look through the program. The only time "GS" is mentioned is when "GSAS" pops up. It's not the other schools' fault that GS chooses not to participate whatsoever in V118. Next time, instead of complaining, audition or try to engage.

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Anonymous posted on

"We haven't seen any strong enough female applicants to Columbia anyway," - Beggars can't be choosers, 1905"It's not our fault that Irish and Jewish students choose Columbia's Seth Low Junior College instead of CC," - Beggars can't be choosers, 1930"We have plenty of room for black students, but none of them want to pay to get in," - Beggars can't be choosers, 1945"GS students came to Columbia, but they just aren't trying to get involved in undergrad life," - Beggars can't be choosers, 2012

It was a huge playbill with one GS/JTS student total. If you can assume that 2,000 GSers - a dramatist-heavy group, and 25% of the undergrad population - aren't trying to participate in campus life, then you probably haven't taken a math or econ course yet. I'm still on the undergraduate unity kick...but really I'd like to know where the Varsity Show tries to recruit from, and how many GSers were turned down for roles anyway.

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Anonymous posted on

Not one GS student auditioned for the Varsity Show this year.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't know you but I'm SUCH A FAN!

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