SIX - Brooks Atkinson Theatre
SIX - that would be with an i - is fun. And so is sex, which is what SIX, the sassy British musical “histo-remix” of the six wives of Henry VIII, is really all about: sex as gender, sex as reproduction, sex as recreation, sex as power, and (rarely) sex as love. With gang-buster energy, indefatiguable cool, and the cleverest wit, SIX is not only a rockin’ pastiche of pop song and dance, but also a hip statement about feminist empowerment.
SIX celebrates, as the Queens sing, “a whole lotta history … or as we like to call it HER-story” The intermission-less 80-minute show structures itself as a pop concert - a sort of battle of the stars - with Henry’s wives taking turns in order of Henry’s marriages - in retelling in song their stories, beckoning the audience to judge who suffered the most. The winner would become the group’s lead singer.
Given that two of the six, Anne Boleyn (wife #2) and Katherine Howard (#5), were beheaded (both on charges of infidelity) that doesn’t seem to be much of a contest, but all of the women make a good case for how hard it was putting up with Henry. Catherine of Aragon (#1) endured a 25-year marriage only to have it annulled when Henry broke from the Roman Catholic Church. Jane Seymour (#3) hemorrhaged after delivering Edward, Henry’s only male heir; she claims she was Henry’s “true love”. Anna of Cleves (#4), chosen by Henry based on an oil portrait, gets rejected by him when they meet in the flesh. Catherine Parr (#6) gave up the love of her life because one can’t say no to a King; she outlives Henry. And so SIX’s character refrain goes: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
Co-writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss dreamed the SIX concept up at Cambridge University; theater students from there performed SIX first at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017. Eventually a West End hit, SIX played in several regional theatres in the US in 2019. Its Broadway opening was axed (pun intended) in early 2020 because of the pandemic.
Marlow and Moss’s lyrics come feisty and fast. The music is a pumping blend of contemporary pop-rock styles, with interstitial rap. Moss co-directs with Jamie Armitage, and with an exceptionally evenly talented, multi-ethnic cast. Each of the Queen’s performances channel specific pop divas from Beyonce to Adele. Onstage, there is a rock combo quartet of four women, The Ladies in Waiting , who get introduced by the queens, as if it were a rock concert. Lighting by Tim Deling is like an arena (as if it were a rock concert). The spellbinding costumes by Gabriella Slade, combining elements from leather to jewels, suggest everything from gladiator to royalty.
Of the nine musical sequences, the full ensemble numbers score every time. Of the six queen numbers, the least successful is “Heart of Stone”, a ballad by Jane Seymour (sportingly played by understudy Mallory Maedke at the performance I attended). It’s folk/rock ballad nature is at odds with the electricity of the rest of the score; the number is supposed to be in the mode of Adele or Sia but it’s more like Celine Dionne. What’s more, Seymour as the “goodie two-shoes” of the queens comes across as the least interesting. The most humorous number, “Don’t Lose Ur Head” belongs to Anne Boleyn (delivered with perfect timing by the short and spunky Andrea Macasaet). The show-stopper, hands-down, is “Get Down” by Anna of Cleves (a fabulous, piss-and-vinegar Brittney Mack). The number, too, gets the best of Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography, a non-stop blend of sexy, sassy maneuvers that recalls the moves of Janet Jackson, J-Lo, and even the Spice Girls back in the day.
Conveniently, writers find in the story of Catherine Parr, the last of Henry’s wives, a facile instrument to conclude SIX. The intellectual Parr (winningly played by understudy Keirston Nicole Hodgens), the first woman in England to have books published under her own name, eschews the girl vs. girl competition, reminding the other queens they need not be defined by the husband they have in common. Rejecting Henry for them all, she proclaims “Now I don’t need your love. All I need is SIX”. After a year and half of the pandemic, SIX is just what the rest of us need, too.