The Axe Committee’s train whistle blasts a battle cry. Hoover Tower is set ablaze in a fiendish red light. A skewered stuffed bear sacrificially crowns The Claw fountain, which is filled with crimson blood.
Though dazed and confused tourists ignorantly gaze upon these war sites, Stanford affiliates understand their true meaning. The “big” football game against Cal is looming, and Stanford chooses to energize this rivalry through clear demonstrations of school spirit.
But nothing mobilizes and unites the Stanford homefront like Gaieties.
Gaieties, an original student-composed musical performed annually in Memorial Auditorium, functions to galvanize student support and excitement before the Big Game. Though Ram’s Head Theatrical Society produces a different Gaieties each year, the production consistently valorizes Stanford and antagonizes Cal. As Stanford’s longest standing theatrical tradition, Gaieties has combined undergraduate artistic, narrative, performative, collaborative and technical talent for over a century.
In most Gaieties scripts, the fate and security of Stanford is endangered, and the protagonists must save the institution from imminent destruction. While recent iterations of Gaieties have sent Stanford students traveling through time, unraveling a murder mystery and even falling prey to a love virus set loose during Full Moon on the Quad, Gaieties 2018 situates Stanford in a more mystical realm. Just as the title, “Jane Stanford and the Chamber of Secrets” might suggest, head writers Sam Weyen (‘18) and Matt Bernstein (‘20) have chosen to coat the Stanford bubble with a layer of magic.
For Harry Potter super fans like myself, this Gaieties concept is absolutely enchanting. But that is not to say Gaieties’ 2018 narrative is only accessible to J.K. Rowling groupies and Hermione wannabes. Rather, it intelligently uses magic as a narrative device to propel Stanford-specific plot lines and humor.
The premise is expertly outlined in the first few minutes of the musical by Eric Bear (‘22), our delightfully emphatic narrator. Supported by a dynamic reenactment reminiscent of “Beauty and the Beast,” Bear elucidates the role of magic in Stanford’s history. In this narrator’s telling, the Stanford family possessed a magical orb that ultimately caused Leland Stanford Jr.’s death. A heartbroken Jane Stanford chose to establish the Stanford School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in hopes of teaching children how to use magic responsibly. But prior to her death, Jane was forced to hide the orb from power-hungry forces. The orb secretly maintained the University’s seemingly perfect atmosphere for decades, until perky present-day freshmen discover it, slowly gain an understanding of its influence and accidentally let it fall into the hands of an evil Cal student. The Stanford students are then driven to use their newfound magical powers to ensure Stanford doesn’t devolve into complete chaos.
As the protagonists’ understanding of their respective magical powers strengthen, the show’s themes of self love, friendship, belonging and individuality strengthen as well. The writing draws charactorial, structural and participatory inspiration from other well-known musical works like “High School Musical,” “Into the Woods” and even “Peter Pan.” However, just as tourists likely won’t understand why a sacrificial stuffed bear is centrally featured on campus, they probably won’t understand this production either. Its narrative, humor and cultural references are deeply entrenched in the current Stanford undergraduate experience. And that’s okay. Among a constant barrage of inside jokes are references to a shockingly useful PMA, the death of Sig Chi, an equally attractive non-alcoholic “grail” and even an ominous physicalization of the Stanford endowment. The writing is an irreverent homage to Stanford, and unashamedly claims a space only Stanford dramatists could fill.
Structurally, the story takes audiences on a wild ride–at times, perhaps too wild of a ride. Many exciting plot twists fill the narrative, but I occasionally found myself confused by the characters’ constantly shifting micro-objectives. The music is brilliantly diverse, ranging stylistically from classic Broadway cheese to 2000s rock, but the songs could have functioned to further the musical’s plot in a more effective manner. A few more solo songs should have be added to highlight the protagonists’ growth and provide performers with more opportunities to shine. However, the many energetic and complex group dance numbers that ornament the majority of the musical’s songs, as choreographed by Samantha Loui, are thrilling stand-alone moments, albeit narratively disconnected.
With freshmen comprising 75% percent of the cast, director Charlie Dubach-Reinhold (‘19) and producer Chris Huntley (‘20) particularly highlight what Gaieties is known to do best: they positively showcase performance-inclined frosh and inaugurate them into the Stanford theater scene. And these actors live up to their own hype.
Lizzie Dowdle (‘22) plays Rita, a freshman plagued with Stanford duck syndrome who desperately searches for direction and belonging in her academic and social spheres. Though Gaieties is usually filled with highly stylized comedic acting choices, Dowdle’s portrayal of Rita is refreshingly authentic. As the most consistently featured soloist, her brightly mixed singing voice slices through Memorial Auditorium’s poor acoustics with ease, comfortability, and intention. At her side is Gabby (Paloma Aisenberg, ‘22), Rita’s roommate who grows into her own strength and independence, and Doug (Johnny Rabe, ’22), an earnest student archeologist. These three actors collectively ground the musical’s extremely complex plot and numerous tertiary characters by building meaningful relationships with each other and functioning as a through line. Alternatively, Morgan Gwilym Tso’s (‘22) portrayal of Troy, a character who evilly embodies everything despicable about Cal, is devious, bold, and scheming in all the right ways. He is one audiences love to hate. The Gaieties ensemble is best represented by Caroline Utz (‘22) who, in addition to memorably playing a hilarious and brassy humanization of the late Tequila Lounge, embodies Gaieties’ revered fervor and vibrancy in every ensemble dance she’s a part of.
Technically, the lighting and sound design by Kaitlyn Khayat (‘21), Allen Wehner (‘20), and Jamie Tippett (‘19) visually, sonically and satirically enhance the show’s magic. The set is satisfyingly backdropped by Memorial Church, and the costume design is as goofy and spirited as ever. Though some microphones were mistimed, these discrepancies have likely been fixed.
“Jane Stanford and the Chamber of Secrets” is clearly a community effort. With upwards of 90 undergraduate students working on the project, Gaieties displays and reflects a united front during Big Game week. It is evident every student poured an immense amount of time and effort into the production. The joy each player exchanges and emotes onstage can’t help but burst through the fourth wall, reminding us all how lucky we are to call Stanford home.
“Jane Stanford and the Chamber of Secrets” will perform Nov. 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. in Memorial Auditorium. Tickets can be purchased at https://gaieties.stanford.edu/.
Contact Chloe Wintersteen at chloe20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.