Review: Six Ex-Wives Tear Down the Patriarchy Rather Than Each Other in SIX: THE MUSICAL at Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts in Orlando

Pop-rock concerts headlined by historical figures aren’t typically the way one expects to spend an evening, but SIX: THE MUSICAL delivers all that and more at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

By: Oct. 05, 2022
Review: Six Ex-Wives Tear Down the Patriarchy Rather Than Each Other in SIX: THE MUSICAL at Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts in Orlando

Pop-rock concerts headlined by historical figures aren't typically the way one expects to spend an evening, but SIX: THE MUSICAL delivers all that and more at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Reading back that sentence now, it seems like an adaption of the third act for 1988's Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but fortunately is done to better effect in SIX. Whereas Bill and Ted need to save humanity's future by passing a history class, the six ex-wives of Henry VIII are looking to rewrite history to their favor, striving to become more than their familiar mnemonic device of "Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived." In a bid to make a historical lecture more interesting, the her-story of these women are transformed into a high-energy rock concert with a vibe that could easily rival the spectacle of a Lady Gaga Chromatica Ball.

Review: Six Ex-Wives Tear Down the Patriarchy Rather Than Each Other in SIX: THE MUSICAL at Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts in Orlando

SIX began its life at Cambridge University as an end-of-term project by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, with an afterlife that soon eclipsed its original production. Making its debut at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the atypical premise and popularity ensured its return the following year, with strong word-of-mouth recommendations and sold-out showings eventually drawing in West End producers who brought it to professional stages. Five years on, its endurance and appeal cannot be understated enough. The stage show has now made its way not only to Broadway, but in a national tour that has been dubbed the "Aragon Tour" owing to the first wife of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon. Naming this the "Aragon Tour" pretty much ensures that future tours (a second "Boleyn Tour" is already on the 2023 docket) will continue to re-tell the story of Henry VIII's Ex-Wives Club.

After the six women introduce themselves in "Ex-Wives," we learn the purpose of the concert: their newly-formed girl group must decide which of them shall be their leader. The criteria for such a judgment falls on the audience, as each ex-wife must prove to the public how terrible their life was under Henry. Whoever the audience feels suffered the most shall lead the group. Each wife is given her chance to explain their story through a song, hoping to garner the audience's favor. Embedded within each song is a vice or virtue that proved to be each wife's undoing and ultimately led to their divorce, beheading, or death.

Beginning first is Catherine of Aragon (Khaila Wilcoxon), whose "No Way" paints the picture of a Loyal wife that was tossed aside because she couldn't give Henry VIII a male heir. Henry opted to divorce her in order to marry Anne Boleyn (Storm Lever). Boleyn's partying Lifestyle (plus five miscarriages) eventually lead to her beheading, as eloquently put in the social-media-inspired "Don't Lose Ur Head." The wives then scorn at Jane Seymour (Orlando local Jasmine Forsberg in her North American Tour debut), whose claim to Henry is one of idealized Love. She was, after all, the only wife to produce a male heir (Edward VI), but concedes that to love Henry required a "Heart of Stone."

Despondent after Jane's death, but still looking for royal companionship, Henry VIII goes on the rebound with Anna of Cleves (Olivia Donalson). That spark gets snuffed out quickly, but she celebrates her Loss with "Get Down." Katherine Howard (Cassie Silva, dance captain) is given almost as much scorn as Jane Seymour, as the men in her life simply Lust after her and never want anything more than that physical pleasure ("All You Wanna Do"). By the time we reach Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo), the wives all mock her place among them as Last by the simple virtue of merely outliving her husband. Yet Catherine Parr is the one to point out that the story of her life should not be defined by Henry VIII ("I Don't Need Your Love").

As a concert, SIX maintains the momentum and energy for its audience with a consistently good set list of songs, the brazzle-dazzle of lights on the stage, and playful choreography that add up to an exciting ninety minutes of sheer, unadulterated fun. Its cast of six performers and four "ladies in waiting" in the band deliver both powerhouse vocals and equally-strong instrumentals that supported each other nicely inside the Walt Disney Theatre. I can't remember the last time I attended a concert with as much energy and spirit as SIX. Much of tonight's audience already seemed familiar with the music; I imagine a great deal were fans of the musical as evident by the throngs of cheers if even just the opening notes of a song were played. Each song is written as a pastiche of a popular, contemporary female artist ranging from Beyoncé to Adele to Rihanna. As a result, each performer needs to be familiar with that contemporary artist, and deliver a performance on par with them both in vocally and showmanship.

Review: Six Ex-Wives Tear Down the Patriarchy Rather Than Each Other in SIX: THE MUSICAL at Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts in Orlando

Fortunately, the performers knew to play to the house in that way, deciding when to address the audience, when to milk the applause. At one point, Olivia Donalson spoke to a first-row attendee directly, inviting her to dance along with her during "Get Down." The audience member stood up and followed briefly for a few seconds of choreography, but thankfully remained in her row. Credit should also be given to understudy Cassie Silva, filling in for tonight's performance as Katherine Howard and absolutely killing it during the very physical number "All You Wanna Do." Her delivery of some lines in the song were a bit breathy, but for good reason. She's playing a character whose entire appeal to men is her physicality, with complex choreography to match. I felt exhausted just watching it; I can't imagine how intense it would be to perform it.

That being said, the spectacle of SIX as a concert shouldn't supercede the more cerebral nature in its narrative. As mentioned before, the concept of this show is one in which six women form a girl group to sing about their collective experiences with the husband they all shared. That's already a lot to unpack in terms of how these women view both themselves and each other in relation to The Man in Their Lives, but we should also consider history has depicted them over the centuries. As the platitude goes, history is written by the victors. For over five centuries, the lives of these women were recounted by men in control of the narrative. SIX may not be the first time someone has questioned that narrative, but certainly is the first to do so in a way as far removed as can be from a dry History Channel documentary.

Thus, it may be easier for some to not want to think about this revisionist lens and just enjoy getting lost in the spectacle of SIX as a concert. But I feel that would do the show's creators a disservice by focusing simply on how they turned the events of five hundred years ago into bops and beats with mass musical appeal. Don't get me wrong, I'm probably going to listen to the cast recording in my car for the next couple weeks, but it's just as important to listen to the words beyond their hummable nature. Embedded within the lyrics is a lot of clever wordplay, with words and phrases taking double meanings based on how we wish to interpret them. Phrases like "Live in Consort" are more obvious, as it's a play on "Live in Concert" as well as their roles as Queen Consort, the spouse to a reigning monarch. Then you get a throwaway line like Anne Boleyn declaring herself pret a manger. Literally, it translates into "ready to eat," so speaks to Anne's French origins, but it also refers to the plentiful convenience shops of the same name found throughout the UK. And, given the context of an earlier line about trying to "get ahead," could also suggestively mean oral sex. How we choose to interpret words and lines can change our perception of these characters.

As a result, every song carries within it a two-fold meaning. Each wife is telling her story, but each line could be interpreted differently based on our judgment of their character. We cannot take any of these songs at face value because to do so would be to limit ourselves to the straightforward, traditional interpretation of both these SIX characters and the historical figures they are based upon. Every line reading becomes more important in subsequent listens because they carry a story that's not being told, a perspective unexamined until we're forced to confront that alternative.

Review: Six Ex-Wives Tear Down the Patriarchy Rather Than Each Other in SIX: THE MUSICAL at Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts in Orlando

The six wives also enter Daphne Du Maurier territory by constantly fixating upon a character we never even meet in this show: Henry VIII. For someone who doesn't merit an appearance, he's the focal point for much of the action. Early on, the women compete against each other in terms of how they were negatively affected by him. It mirrors the "I" character in du Maurier's Rebecca, as "I" is an otherwise nameless character whose fixation with the first Mrs. de Winter becomes obsessive at times. Yet the fixation with Henry VIII never becomes one of obsessive comparison, or even obsessive love like Maxim's love for "I." Rather, the women unite in their hatred of him for how he treated them. And this collective misandry for one man ultimately re-defines him as a chapter of their own story, rather than the traditional historical perspective of each wife as a chapter in his.

Then again, calling it misandry doesn't paint the women in a positive light. Considering it misandry is more than likely wrong on my part. But, as I said to my theatre companion tonight, SIX functions almost as an anti-Nine. "All those women fawning over Guido Contini?" I recounted, "They'd just as soon tear him apart here." The Maury Yeston musical focused on a beloved director and the nine women fawning over him, but SIX flips that script and gives us a well-known historical figure and the six women's fury over him. Whether their hatred is justified is, again, an open-ended question it poses to the audience. But there was a comfort in hearing from various audience members - during my impromptu eavesdropping of a few folks as I left Dr. Phillips Center - that many were more than happy to have history retold in a way that made it more sympathetic to the women of its time.

At the end of the day, SIX proves that both the spectacle of the story and the speculation of its meaning can thrive together. What is history, after all, if it's not a chance to re-examine the past to find new meaning for the future? How the events unfolded five hundred years ago will not change. Henry VIII will always have six wives who each met a fate that's been reduced to a childhood nursery rhyme. Yet how we interpret these events today, or a hundred years from now, should teach us volumes. SIX asks us to consider a perspective of women in history beyond their relationship to a man, as we should consider their role in the course of human events as figures with their own agency and desires. Perhaps we should take this approach and revisit other popular figures in history and instead turn the spotlight on the women following behind them.

SIX is currently playing at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts from October 4 through October 9, 2022. Tickets can be acquired online or at the box office, pending availability.