Queens Have Their Say in Sizzling 'Six'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday August 29, 2019

 Adrianna Hicks and ensemble in "Six"
Adrianna Hicks and ensemble in "Six"  (Source:Liz Lauren)

Hey, could that be Beyonce singing a pop anthem about coping with patriarchal authority? Or is that Adele knocking a power ballad out of the park because of her unrequited love for her volatile husband? And Ariana Grande spinning her ponytail as she wails against a powerful man who treats her as a sex object?

No, but you can be forgiven for thinking that while watching "Six," the sensational musical that takes the six wives of Henry VIII and time trips them into the present as a members of a girls pop group. To be fair, though, they've had nearly 500 years to process their grievances and they have issues.

Much of their anger is addressed to the absent Henry, who over his 30 years as king turned his private life into a course of events worthy of the Kardashians. If he were alive today, he'd likely have a reality competition to determine his wives — "Dancing for your Lives?" — perhaps? Indeed, the dark side of his treatment of his six wives was how cruelly he treated them (including two beheadings.)

But don't cry for any of these royals (okay, maybe for sad Jane Seymour who really loved the guy); they have scores to settle, at least with each other. The premise of "Six" has them competing for just which had the worst experience as queen, telling their stories in snippets of dialogue and some wittily-styled pop songs in the styles of leading music divas. (For those interested in previewing the songs, the British cast album is available on Spotify.)

Anna Uzele and ensemble in "Six"
Anna Uzele and ensemble in "Six"  (Source: Liz Lauren)

This hook makes "Six" an irresistible entertainment that sustains its concept for a tight 80-minutes, even turning its arc from a catty competition for a dubious, male centric honor into an expression of female empowerment. Why do we remember Henry VIII if not for these women?

Not only do these queens have agendas as to who has the saddest story (it is a bit like that old - and appropriately titled - afternoon television show "Queen for a Day"); but they express them in terse, smart songs that perform two functions: capture the style of contemporary pop styles while telling their individual stories with clarity and wit. In this way it is a kissing cousin to the megahits "Hamilton" and "Moulin Rouge," and very well may be as big a phenomena as they are when it makes it to New York early next year.

What the show does extraordinarily well is parse large gobs of Tudor history into easily understandable chunks than give them emotional heft with exacting pastiches of contemporary pop songs. In this case, it does "Moulin Rouge" one better - these songs are originals by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (who also conceived and staged the piece) that are filled with cotton-candyish hooks or power ballad riffs all the while conveying crucial aspects of each's marriage to the most famous serial wedder. There is, for instance, cheeky fun when Anne Boleyn sings a playful Katy Perry-ish riff about losing her head; a clever take on selfie culture circa 1540 with Anna of Cleves' story; and Catherine Parr (the surviving wife) gets all Whitney in expressing her love for a courtier that got away when she is forced to marry Henry.

Brittney Mack and ensemble in "Six"
Brittney Mack and ensemble in "Six"  (Source: Brittney Mack and ensemble in "Six")

These songs are served up by such an exceptional company of ten women (the six queens and their first-rate, four member band), it would be foolish to cite one over the other. Each sketches their characters in broad strokes, then sells them in spectacular fashion once in the spotlight. The multi-cultural ensemble consists of Adrianna Hicks as the haughty Catherine of Aragon; Andrea Macasaet the snarky Anne Boleyn; Abby Mueller the heartfelt Jane Seymour; Brittney Mack a gold-digging Anna of Cleves; Courtney Mack the abused Katherine Howard; and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr, the surviving queen with a sad secret in her heart, and, singly and together, put this engaging entertainment into the stratosphere with their performances.

Moss and Armitage stage their show with a keen understanding of the dynamics of a pop concert, and they get immeasurable assistance from Carrie-Anne Ingrouille for her smartly integrated choreography. The show's flashy look (the inspired designs by Emma Bailey [set], Gabriella Slade [costumes], Tim Deiling [lighting] and Paul Gatehouse [sound]) recall a small-scaled arena show with criss-crossing neon lighting effects both on the stage and surrounding the proscenium. This is the kind of show you would likely see at the House of Blues, but is right at home at the Loeb. (You can easily imagine a slightly altered production finding its way to Oberon for an extended run like the soon-to-be departed "The Donkey Show.") Indeed, part of what makes "Six" so unique is how brilliantly it mixes up genres in such a seamless and original fashion. It is a time-tripping, cross-cultural hybrid that very well may be the most fun you will have in the theater this season.

"Six" continues through September 29 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].