Musical Review

SIX Puts a Modern Twist on History

SIX is the right musical at the right time. Conceived and written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six taps into female empowerment from what most would consider an unlikely source — the six wives of King Henry VIII. But this is no PBS documentary nor does it have the intellectual heft of Hamilton. It’s more of a fun house caricature replete with anachronistic nods to pop culture and contemporary music. The show is structured with the conceit that the ex-wives have convened for a competition to determine who holds the dubious distinction of having suffered the most at the hands of Henry the Eighth. By completely excising Henry from the narrative and placing the focus on the women, the wives are given newfound agency that no doubt eluded them during their lifetime.

The cast of Six perform
The cast of SIX perform “Haus of Holbein.”

Showcasing a sextet of powerhouse vocalists, Six grabs the audience from the moment the curtain goes up with a high-energy intensity that is pure pop-driven entertainment. After 3 brutal years of pandemic anxiety and isolation and headlines with women’s rights on the chopping block, Six reclaims the agency of these women from the musty history books which have traditionally been relegated to being depicted as passive victims of a powerful and privileged man. With the prevalence of serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump getting their comeuppance after decades of exploiting women, Six offers a fun and unfettered juggernaut of female empowerment. What it lacks in subtlety and nuance, it makes up for in sheer entertainment as evidenced by the audience fervor and its Tony for Best Original Score in 2022.

That is not to diminish its value or artistic merit. Cleverly packaged by its creators as an 80-minute, intermission-less show, with 9 well-crafted songs that feel immediately familiar and current, it’s easy to forgive the gimmicky premise that brings these exes together. Its broad (no pun intended), in-your-face, exaggerated style is well-suited to the TikTok generation of short attention spans and immediate gratification. These ladies command the stage in bold primary colors and lots of bling. The writers were smart to give each “wife” their own signature song composed to conjure recognizable icons from Beyoncé to Adele and Britney Spears and Ariana Grande. The comparisons help the audience distinguish and differentiate the different personalities.

First up is Catherine of Aragon who wound up as Henry’s wife after the death of her first husband who was Henry’s brother. How’s that for some Real Housewives of Tudor Dynasty dirt? Bringing plenty of Sasha Fierce to the role of Catherine is Khaila Wilcoxon whose dynamic stage presence and formidable vocal prowess set a high bar. Next up is Anne Boelyn whose claim to post mortem fame is that she was beheaded which she wears like a badge of honor and believes solidifies her status as the wife who suffered the most. She is played with a saucy playfulness by Storm Lever. While the program lists Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne as this character’s musical inspiration, I was getting more of an Ariana Grande vibe, especially with lyrics like “sorry, not sorry.” Natalie Paris plays ex-wife #3 Jane Seymour whose power ballad “Heart of Stone” was fashioned after Adele and Sia. Seymour is characterized as one of the few ex-wives who genuinely loved Henry.

Khaila Wicoxon as Catherine of Aragon.
Khaila Wilcoxon channels Beyoncé as Catherine of Aragon.

The musical then takes a whimsically offbeat tangent to Germany with the unlikely coupling between Henry and wife #4 Anne of Cleves whom he courted solely based on her portrait. The women don Day-Glo sunglasses and Elizabethan collars, singing with exaggerated German accents for an ensemble number called “Haus of Holbein” for the artist whose portrait led to their ill-fated union. The marriage was never consummated and annulled after six months, but Anne received a generous consolation property which seemed to suit her just fine. Olivia Donalson brings a Lizzo flair to her performance as Anne of Cleves. After the initial disappointment of being rejected by the King, Anne of Cleves leans into her role as royal castoff, relishing her newfound wealth and power, the king’s spurned affection be damned. While the program says her signature song was inspired by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, Donalson brought the full figured body positivity and in-your-face confidence of Lizzo to her signature song “Get Down.”

Courtney Mack brought Britney vibes to her portrayal of wife #5 Katherine Howard and her sex-fueled song “All You Wanna Do.” The song starts with a playful sex kitten vibe but takes a dark turn toward the end of the song as she too winds up beheaded. Gabriela Carrillo plays Henry’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr whose song “I Don’t Need Your Love” was inspired by Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé. Lest the show be accused of perpetuating the implicit misogyny of pitting women against each other, the narrative does an about-face and upends the conceit of a competition in favor of a final ensemble number where the ex-wives band together, reclaiming their power and their place in history. The North American tour runs through July 2024.

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