Incessantly energetic, witty and self-referential, and over-the-top as usual, Gaieties 2014 opened with a bang Wednesday night in Memorial Auditorium. “A Clockwork Cardinal” is a glorified Big Game rally, a Stanford tradition full of bright lights, big sounds, and a whole pile of gags. The plot – always about a dastardly UC Berkeley plan to destroy Stanford – doesn’t really matter, and the protagonists – always a ragtag group of Stanford students – don’t really matter either. This year’s script embraces that idea and pokes fun at themselves along with Stanford and Cal, accomplishing its goal of pumping up Stanford students for Saturday’s Big Game.
This year’s predictably wafer-thin storyline follows Stanford freshman Maddie Hoover (a talented Kyle Robinson) as she tries to discover what makes her special in a sea of exemplary classmates. Meanwhile, four PAC-12 mascots, led by Berkeley’s Oski the Bear (a hilarious Nicolas Pether), hatch a despicable plot to steal Stanford students’ special skills. Maddie leads a group of classmates, including Phil Wunk, the Tree (Calvin Studebaker), and Nikki Acropolis (Heather Kramer), a girl amusingly obsessed with [ancient] Greek life, in an attempt to save Stanford from the villains.
This year’s “Gaieties” is shot through with a vein of arch, sarcastic self-reference. “The story doesn’t matter, we know you don’t care,” sings this year’s cast of “Gaieties” in a self-referential song about “Gaieties.” When Robinson delivers a clichéd inspirational speech about what makes each of us special, it’s clear that she’s in on the joke. The climactic confrontation between the heroes and the villains occurs at this year’s production of “Gaieties” – a play within the very same play.
Of course, because it is Gaieties, the show reaches earnestly for the very same emotion that it mocks. In most cases, its penchant for self-reference undermines any real emotion. Maddie never has a chance to endear herself to the audience because she is a flat character amidst a whirlwind of gags and in-jokes. Most of “A Clockwork Cardinal” is a little too earnest, slowing the pace of each of the bits, which need to be snappier. She turns into a caricature of the everywoman rather than a believable everywoman. (It’s a shame, because Robinson won me over with her big voice in her first big number, “Maddie’s Lament.”)
Still, several actors manage to deliver particularly strong performances on such uneven ground. As the ghost of Herbert Hoover, Andre Amarotico steals every scene in which he appears. He sinks his teeth into choice lines about tasting hummus and Doritos for the first time (“D-D-D-D-DAMN THAT’S DELICIOUS!”) and elevates the material with his commitment to the character. Amarotico even manages to play this schticky, irreverent role with enough heart to convince us that he really cares about his granddaughter Maddie.
Trey Hale as reluctant fratboy Fratstar Francis, Jr., walks the same line between irreverence and emotion with his teddy bear delivery. He is the only supporting character that grows enough throughout the show to earn his emotional final scene. And Larry Liu makes a short, delightful turn as the deadpan professor of Sleep and Dreams, one of the few performances in “A Clockwork Cardinal” completely devoid of earnest schtick.
Had the Gaieties team committed more fully to sharp irreverence and pure comedy, the show likely would have had more zing. Regrettably, a few scenes, such as Maddie’s visit to the South Stacks or the first meeting of the villains, hang limp due to lifeless staging. The empty stage stands as a challenge to the actors, and they are not all up to the task of filling the space with energy.
But, again, none of this really matters to you, potential Gaieties audience member. Gaieties is about pumping Stanford students up for the Big Game with flashing lights and incessant energy. For the most part, this year’s “Gaieties” succeeds in this pursuit. Raves during scene changes keep the energy high, though, and the ceaseless flood of musical numbers and gags keeps the audience perky and amused. Many lyrics are inaudible and the jokes are hit-or-miss, but the melodies are catchy enough and a few jokes are pure gold. (One in particular involving naked students’ walk of shame is too good to spoil.)
By the end of the show, the audience is up and dancing to a raucous performance by the Band and cheering wildly for Stanford. I catch myself humming “All Right Now,” Stanford’s unofficial fight song, as I bike away. It’s obvious that Gaieties has accomplished its goal.
Get tickets at gaieties.stanford.edu.
Contact Alex Cheng at aexcheng “at” stanford.edu.