Taming of the Shrew; Waitress Hat Trick

Katharina and Petruchio, photo @ Jack Devant

The Lincoln Center Festival chugged along with more Bolshoi Ballet -- this time they were dancing Jean-Christophe Maillot's Taming of the Shrew. After the excitement of Superjewels, this seemed anti-climactic. I went to see the opening night performance and while it was a perfectly pleasant way to spend a summer evening it's not something I'll rush to see again.

The ballet has some virtues. One, its brevity. With an intermission and the prolonged Russian-style curtain calls you were still out of the theater within 1 hr 45 minutes. Two, the score. The music is piecemeal Shostakovich which meant it was always listenable and often very fun. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin (Bianca and Lucentio) have two calm, glamorous pas de deux that establish these two remarkable dancers as the foremost classicists of the company. The role of Hortensio is one of those Bolshoi bravura cameos that gets the entire crowd yelling, especially when danced with the explosiveness of Igor Tsvirko (seriously, wow! He has a pretty cool Youtube channel where you can see him dance other roles).

Bianca and Lucentio (Smirnova and Chudin), photo @ Jack Devant
But, but, but. Maillot ran into the same issues choreographers always run into while adapting Shakespeare: the Bard is all about the Words, and dance is all about the Moves. Unless you have a score at the caliber of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet or Mendelssohn's incidental music to Midsummer's Night Dream, pure-dance lends itself very poorly to Shakespeare. You might ask, what about Kiss Me Kate? And again, two words: Cole Porter. Plus, a musical allows for dialogue and lyrics that take you farther into Shakespeare's world than a pure-dance work. Many of the nuances of the play are gone in Maillot's work. One of the biggest is Bianca's manipulative, passive-aggressive personality that is so important in the play -- it's Shakespeare's way of reminding all men that your perfectly sweet, obedient, virtuous wife-to-be probably isn't any of those things. In Maillot's version she's just a glamorous Stepford wife. Smirnova does manage to insert a slightly smug, bitchy look that hints at Bianca's darker side. 

Kryasanova and Lanatrov, photo @ Jack Devant
Maillot also doesn't have the choreographic vocabulary to bring Katharina and Petruchio's love-hate relationship to life with any degree of subtlety. Instead the long pas de deux that culminates with the consummation of their marriage is just a sort of a PG-13-rated S&M-lite: think Fifty Shades of Grey without the shade. Taming of the Shrew has enough built-in tawdriness to tolerate the predictable Maillot style: as you might expect, Katharina is manhandled, dragged to the point where you fear for her shoulder sockets, pushed, pulled, lifted in about 50 different crotch-baring ways, etc. etc. etc. It's to the credit of Ekaterina Kryasanova (Katharina) and Vladislav Lanatrov (so gorgeous, but alas, given practically no dancing to do -- he does look nice shirtless though) that they do all these steps without ever seeming cheap and they're able to generate heat despite the overwrought choreography.

The choreography has some other affectations that irritate: for instance, the house lights go down and the housekeeper (a glamour girl with a chic bob, played by Yanina Parienko) sits in front of the curtain lazing around as the orchestra warms up in cacophony. After about 5 minutes of this nonsense the conductor finally walks to the podium. 

The company, photo @Mikhail Loginov
It's a testament to the strength of the Bolshoi dancers that this was even watchable. Tonight's performance just reaffirmed what I thought of them in Superjewels -- that they have the finest male dancers in the world. Their feet! Their faces! Their HAIR!!! They're not just pretty though -- they have enough horsepower to get the crowds screaming. As for the females, Taming of the Shrew is not a fair judge of their talents -- they don't have much substantial dancing to do, but as always with these Russian companies you admire the heart, the energy, the tirelessness. Today in the first act a fire alarm went off and beeped incessantly. We in the fourth ring were told to vacate, as were other sections of the house. It was chaos for about a good 10 minutes. During that time the dancers were onstage, completely oblivious, dancing with the same ease, and still remembered to close their feet for a tight fifth position.

This is a great company and I can't wait to see them again. Just not in Taming of the Shrew.

Sara Bareilles and Betsy Wolfe, from @Waitressmusical twitter
On July 22 I went to see Waitress again -- third time in three months. I rarely do musical hat-tricks but Waitress has become the musical for which I have the most personal affection. I went back mainly because there's been quite a cast reshuffling -- Betsy Wolfe replaced the amazing Sara Bareilles, Drew Gehling returned as Dr. Pomatter (I saw his replacement), Jeremy Morse (Ogie) and Joe Tippett (Earl) are reprising the roles they created when the show was at American Repertory Theatre.

The good news first: Drew Gehling was a much superior Dr. Pomatter than Chris Diamantopoulos. There was nothing wrong with Chris but Drew really captured the persona of the nerdy, slightly awkward doctor whose good manners and shyness appeal so much to Jenna. Caitlin Houlihan (Dawn) and Charity Angel Dawson (Becky) continue their excellent work, as did OBC members Eric Anderson (Cal) and Dakin Matthews (Joe). Jeremy Morse (Ogie) was not quite as outrageous as Christopher Fitzgerald but very funny and endearing as well. His pint-sized stature helped. Joe Tippett's Earl was different from Will Swenson's. Will was more overtly intimidating, whereas Joe was able to code switch between the charming layabout that he presents at the diner with the abusive drunk at home. I found Joe to be more believable -- he's that guy at the local dive bar who is always bitching about women.

The bad news: Betsy Wolfe has an amazing Broadway belter voice, but in many ways was miscast as Jenna. She lacked the down-to-earth sense of humor that Sara Bareilles had in spades, and approaches this role as she might approach any other ingenue character. Her two expressions were a bright showgirl smile and a sulky pout. Sara was great at conveying that Jenna's everyday reality is not happy, and she's accustomed to it, and so she takes everything with a matter-of-factness and sense of humor. Even Wolfe's poofy platinum blond wig was all wrong -- Jenna's not supposed to look like a Southern pageant queen. Also, although the voice is impressive the nasal sound was too much to take at times and grated on the ears.

But the musical just gets better every time you see it. Jenna is already a classic musical theater heroine, with just about everything. A rousing "I want" song ("What Baking Can Do"), a huge 11 o'clock number ("She Used to Be Mine"), and finally an empowering anthem ("Everything Changes"). So many women in the audience identified so much with Jenna they yelled things out during the show (woman next to me yelled "what an asshole!" after Earl took Jenna's hard-earned tips). This is a musical that resonates with women of today. #ImwithJenna.


  1. Interesting review. I was there in the 2nd ring... the fire drill was annoying but I didn't leave.. where there's no smoke there's no fire. What interests me in your review were the remarks related to "libretto"... that is story ballets are adapted from material (stories / libretto) not intended to be danced. So ballet companies have choreographed dance to "story" ballet.

    My reaction to this is... forget the original or... don't get too hung up in the literature and realize the choreographer, and the set designers are trying to convey "vignettes" about relationships between human beings... stringing them together loosely it seems on a skeleton of a classic. I don't expect to be moved the same by the R&J acted and R&J danced or just the music.

    I found Shrew successful. No it wasn't "dazzling" ballet... but the dancing seemed technically as good as it gets. Some it doesn't look like dancing... not ballet. But some of the scenes in R&J or SL look goofy as well by the same yardstick.... and this is true for every "dueling scene" I've seen.. for example.

    When you experience a presentation on a stage you need to suspend judgment and stop referring SO MUCH to something else... like in the case WS's play.

    A lot of ballet is completely "abstract" in the sense that humans don't move the way ballet dancers do... story ballet or not. Dance inhabits a different place and it's wonderful and inspiring to see what dancers and choreographers can do.

    Thanks for the review... Semyon is a sweet guy... I spoke to him after the performance...

    1. Hi, I make a special exception for Shakespeare because in that case the words are SO important. I feel like operas, musicals, movies can capture some of the subtle verbal characterizations of Shakespeare. But not dance. I think when ballets are choreographed to Shakespeare it needs to be more choreographed to an excellent score and the choreographer is also responding to the music. Ex: R&J, Midsummer's Night Dream.

      But I don;t think it's an accident that the most successful ballets have a relatively simple, even fairy-tale-like storyline, or are abstract. I feel the same way about Ratmansky's Anna Karenina or Cranko's Onegin. In Onegin's case, the ballet is a good star vehicle but lacks the richeness and depth of Tchaikovsky's opera.

  2. Of course our taste is informed by our experience... and in the case of story ballet... the original literary work... and then the music written inspired by the same work. The irony is that music and dance are very abstract unless in the case of dance the movements literally imitate the actual movements of humans... surely Shrew had plenty of that. Ballet has some very "ancient" roots and so it's both like seeing a museum and seeing a living "thing"... and these days companies mix it up. I find it all interesting and am not a purist. It would be cool to see an original ballet production costumes, sets and all... the lighting would clearly not be as dramatic as what we see today.

    I find it all interesting and respond to the technical skill of ALL the artists involved in the production. Some of the dancers are amazing to look at on stage... totally mind blowing for me... others just excellent. My experience is limited to seeing ballet over the last 20 years or so and I can't get enough of it. This was a most interesting season for me all and all.


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