BWW Review: SIX at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Bow down to the queens of SIX. In this new musical from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (with direction from Moss and Jamie Armitage), the six wives of King Henry VIII are taking back their mics and sharing their stories-in the form of contemporary pop musical songs. This masterful musical sizzles with electric energy and endless delight. SIX remains a fiery and joyous theatrical affair without ever making light of the fact that the musical demonstrates how these six women are best remembered in history as "belonging" to an infamous king. Yet SIX also brilliantly subverts this notion by reminding us that a huge part of this Henry VIII's legacy stems from the fact that these six women were all his spouses. SIX posits that without this line-up of ex-wives, Henry VIII might not have left such an indelible mark on history.
SIX carries out its joyful and anachronistic takedown of the patriarchy by reimagining its central figures as a girl power pop group. Drawing on musical influences from Ariana Grande to Adele, SIX's powerful and catchy score sends up some of the most revered female pop singers of the moment. Just as these talented pop music artists have cemented their place in music history, so too do the six women of SIX hope to set their own stories straight. The musical sets this up through a competition, in which each wife is given a solo number through which to prove that she was the one who beared the greatest hardship at the hand of her husband-and generally, of the men in the British court who were always given more power and more choice. While framing SIX as a competition might at first seem to negate the show's clearly pro-feminist message, in the end it actually affirms the show's goal. By giving each wife an opportunity to put her story centerstage, these historical figures allow us to see them as individuals rather than as just one unit.
Marlow and Moss have brilliantly designated a different musical style for each wife, which works nicely to distinguish character and to allow for endlessly tuneful pop goodness in the score. All the musical numbers in SIX follow the typical "verse-chorus-verse-chorus" format of modern pop music. This compositional method not only suits the musical style well but also enables Marlow and Moss to make each number into a coherent story.
Moss and Armitage have assembled a brilliant cast for SIX and so all of these performers must be mentioned (also of note: the all-female four-piece band is referred to as the "Ladies in Waiting). As Catherine of Aragon, Adrianna Hicks is up first with the blazing anthem "No Way," in which she displays a fervent desire not to accept her fate lying down. Hicks gives a raucous and commanding performance, setting the tone for an evening that becomes yet more magnificent as the show continues.
Next up is Anne Boleyn, perhaps Henry VIII's most famous wife and best remembered for her beheading (though she shares that unfortunate end with Katherine Howard, as well). As Anne, Andrea Macasaet tears things up with "Don't Lose Ur Head," a cheeky number in the style of Avril Lavigne and Lily Allen. While the song captures Anne's flirtatious reputation in the British court, the double meaning of the title serves to demonstrate how little power Anne had at the end of the day. Macasaet gives the number a playful energy and an exaggerated tone, without ever erring on the side of too cute.
As Anna of Cleves, Brittney Mack delivers the Nicki Minaj-style hip-hop/rap influence numbered "Get Down." Mack's performance takes no prisoners.
Samantha Pauly gives a stellar turn as Katherine Howard, in part because her character's arc is one of the most unexpected. Katherine's song is bubblegum pop tune, "All You Wanna Do" (and Pauly even wears her hair in a send-up to Ariana Grande's signature high ponytail). While the song starts out fun, the lyrics take a turn that reveals a much darker meaning and reflects the continual abuse that Katherine endured throughout her short life. Pauly's performance gives the song due weight, as she moves from an upbeat, sprightly performance to one that morphs into heartbreak and devastation.
Anna Uzele closes out the evening as Catherine Parr, known in part for outliving Henry VIII himself. Her number "I Don't Need Your Love" is an Alicia Keys ballad that starts out slow and lovely and grows to a powerful fanfare. Uzele's performance mirrors this shift, as she becomes more energized and seems to take up more space overall as the song progresses (which is also an apt metaphor for SIX itself). The rallying cry of "I Don't Need Your Love" also fits like a glove with the show's theme about these six women figuring out how to come out from behind the shadow of Henry VIII.
While individually these six performers are outstanding, they're also magnificent together. The score calls upon the six to deliver three group numbers in which they must finesse complex harmonies: the opening number "Ex-Wives," the satirical "Haus of Holbein," and the show's eponymous finale. Hicks, Macasaet, Mueller, Mack, Pauly, and Uzele sound delightful together, and they successfully blend their voices when needed. These performers also provide backing vocals for one another in their individual numbers, which is also a subtle way of underscoring the show's message of female empowerment.
SIX lands at exactly the right cultural moment, but also executes its vision with precision and intelligence. The six performers in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production make this material yet better. All told, to the queens of SIX I say, "Yas, queen."
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren