BWW Review: “SIX” IS MORE THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS at A.R.T. In Cambridge
Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. That's how the six wives of Henry VIII snidely introduce themselves in "Ex-Wives," the rocking opening number of the rollicking new 80-minute musical concert SIX by newcomers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Fusing patriarchal history from 500 years ago with the authority of 21st century female empowerment, SIX wrests common folklore away from the king and creates a new narrative told from the wives' points of view. The result is a raucous, joyous, and at times poignant celebration of herstory that unites rather than divides the queens.
The concert begins as a singing competition to see which wife can win over the audience with the most compelling tale of abuse, scorn, grief, neglect or death. Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), is divorced for failing to give Henry a son. In her defiant solo "No Way," she adamantly refuses to concede to an annulment since she has birthed a daughter with the king. Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) claims to be the most famous wife (and prior to that, mistress) in her anthem dripping with attitude, "Don't Lose Ur Head." Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller) takes a solemn turn with her aching ballad, "Heart of Stone," in which she laments dying in childbirth delivering the son she will never know. She is remembered as the one wife that Henry truly loved, perhaps in part because she gave birth to his only male heir to the throne.
Next comes Anne of Cleves (Brittney Mack), a wealthy queen who takes none of Henry's guff after he weds her based on a painting he had seen. After their nuptials, she tells him in no uncertain terms to "Get Down" with his whining self and get over the fact that she doesn't look like her "profile picture." It's no surprise, then, that she, too, is dispatched via divorce. Katherine Howard (Courtney Mack) paints a fairly tragic picture of her traumatic childhood during which she was used sexually by one man after another. As she sings the raw-edged and haunting, "All You Wanna Do," it becomes clear that Henry abuses her, too. Until he tires of her. And then beheads her. For not being a virgin when they wed.
Alas, the only wife to survive King Henry VIII is Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele), a writer who later becomes the first woman in England ever to publish books under her own name. In her R&B inspired "I Don't Need Your Love," she leads the way for all SIX wives to take back their own stories in the jubilant finale remix, "Six."
Whether the stories of the six wives of Henry VIII are familiar to audiences or not, SIX brings them to life in a marvelously smart, contemporary take. Book and lyrics weave together great wit, copious amounts of snark, and unexpected empathy to enlighten, empower, and wildly entertain. The score, too, is a knockout, with the six queens, backed by a fantastic four-piece all-woman onstage band, ratcheting up the energy to 11.
In a clever nod to the 14th century, the pop-rock orchestrations are inflected every now and then with hints of a harpsichord and a few bars of "Greensleeves." But make no mistake. These queens can belt, and when they do, they individually and collectively bring down the house.
On opening night, a majority of audience members - clearly familiar with every joke, song, and side eye - hooted and hollered uproariously, sometimes to the detriment of the lyrics but certainly in keeping with the spirit of the show. This seems also to have been the case in previous productions in London and Chicago. No doubt when it makes its way to Broadway in February 2020, the reception will be the same.
SIX is truly ingenious. And it's a great, great time.
Produced in association with Chicago Shakespeare Theater; by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss; directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage; choreography, Carrie-Anne Ingrouille; music supervision, Joe Beighton; scenic design, Emma Bailey; costume design, Gabriella Slade; lighting design, Tim Deiling; sound design, Paul Gatehouse; music direction, Roberta Duchak; orchestrations, Tom Curran; production stage manager, Alfredo Macias
Cast, The Queens, in Historical Order:
Performances and Tickets:
Now through September 29, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; tickets start at $25 and are available online at AmericanRepertoryTheater.org, by phone at 617-547-8300, or in person at the Box Office.