REVIEW: Varner Act II Gala Honors Oakland University’s Musical Past While Shining a Bright Spotlight on its Future

Varner Hall, on the campus of Oakland University (OU), has spent the last two years going through much-needed renovations and is finally ready for its close-up. To celebrate, the esteemed OU School of Music, Theatre and Dance is staging the Varner Act II Gala — a show-stopping musical revue under the direction of Teri Hansen in the Varner Studio Theatre.

Hansen, a visiting assistant professor, brings a wealth of screen (Film/TV) and stage (Broadway/London’s West End) experience to this fresh troupe of talent. The Gala is their directorial debut with OU.  

Dressed in various shimmering shades of black and gold (a nod to OU’s colors no doubt), 19 performers take the audience on a 90-minute journey of some of the most well-known songs in musical theatre history and past OU productions. All the artistes make excellent use of the space and the circular stage, creating an immersive experience for the audience. Personally, I found the entire ensemble pieces to be the most powerful and I appreciated how the performers took different positions around the stage during those numbers so that we had a chance to appreciate everyone’s talents. Two pieces in particular that stood out were Marvin Hamlisch’s stirring “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line, which was last staged at OU in 2017 and William Finn’s “Heart Music” from the 2022 production of A New Brain. The latter gave the ensemble a chance to show off a quirkier side and they were loving it.

I don’t know how Hansen could pick 16 songs from such a wealth of musical history, but they and their cast are to be commended for making it look easy. And let’s not forget the talented live band that accompanied the performers throughout the show. So often the musicians are backstage or in an orchestra pit. It was a treat to have them visible and further enhance an already wonderful production.

The cast of Oakland University’s Varner Act II Gala

Some of my other favorite performances include “I Can’t Say No” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! I could tell the singer was having a grand time as she flitted and flirted around the room and with audience members. “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity was sultry, seductive, and gave off a white-hot vibe. Honestly, poetry in motion. Kudos to Choreographer Gregory Patterson. This song alone is worth the price of admission. “What You Want” from Legally Blonde is flat-out high energy and fun. The show also happens to be one of my musical theatre guilty pleasures. Lastly, “The I Love You Song” from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting, and all the credit goes to the trio performing it. An emotional piece with haunting harmonies that lingered in the air as the last notes were sung. For the closing number, it was fitting they chose Stephen Swartz’s “No Time At All” from OU’s 2022 production of Pippin. It truly felt like no time had passed at all and it was a shame the evening had to come to an end.

Not only is the Varner Act II Gala a celebration of American musical theatre but also of OU’s rich musical theatre legacy. In addition to the musical numbers, sprinkled throughout the show were video clips and retrospectives, including two with OU alums, actors Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds) and David Hasselhoff (Baywatch).

This show is a glorious respite from the frantic holiday season that seems to come earlier each year and these students deserve to be performing in front of a packed house. So, treat your inner theatre kid to this musical trip down memory lane at one of these remaining performances:

  • Friday, November 17, 8:00 p.m. (Pride Night)
  • Saturday, November 18, 2:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 18, 8:00 p.m. (Alum Night)
  • Sunday, November 19, 2:00 p.m. (Sensory friendly/Shadow-signed for the Deaf)

This performance is 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Tickets for the Varner Act II Gala can be purchased online at and are $45 for VIP, $25 for adults, $15 for students, and $20 for seniors. OU students and faculty receive complimentary admission.

About Sarah Hovis

Freelance wordsmith, arts appreciator, grammar geek, sports spectator, stationery snob, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at

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