Six is a one of a kind joy

Photo by Joan Marcus

My first reaction to learning that a tour of Six was to arrive in Chicago was: didn’t we just have one of those? My second reaction, following hard upon my first, was: who cares? I’m there! Six might be the perfect show for repeat viewing with its catchy, pulsating, Tony-winning score (by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss), those amazing (and, thanks to Gabriella Slade, also Tony-winning) costumes, that vibrant, inventive, Tony-nominated choreography (Carrie-Anne Ingrouille should have won, and I’ll die on that hill), and, well, everything about it, including the fact that it is an outstanding homage to six women who, despite being “names in a stupid rhyme” that most people know, have always been severely overshadowed by their collective ex-husband, Henry VIII. (And let’s face it: that guy cast a pretty big shadow.)

The rhyme, of course, is a mnemonic device to help remember the fates of the wives: “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” It is repeated many times in this show to make the point that these women were far more than merely the king’s temporary consorts, far more than the way their marriages ended. If you hadn’t known more than that about them when you came in, you definitely would by the time you leave. But this is anything but a dry history lesson. For one thing, that aforementioned score, including cleverly incorporated snippets from the 16th Century’s greatest hit, “Greensleeves,” is powered by a four-piece rock band (all female of course), and will have you dancing in your seats. For another, those glittery metallic costumes demand your attention while the six queens dance to some of the most original choreography you’ve ever seen.

This is not a dull lecture by an exhausted high school history teacher. This thing is alive!

With all of this and the original direction by Moss and Jamie Armitage, this is a can’t-miss show, and I mean that in two ways: it can’t miss being a crowd-pleaser, and you can’t afford to miss it. Even watching it for the third time and knowing that I’d experienced everything about it before, I was drawn into the rock concert styling and the cute/clever ways in which the “ex-wives” are depicted. The one aspect of the show that is new, of course, is the cast and band, and they are (as you’d expect) outstanding. Jane Cardona, a subconductor on the original Broadway run of the show, is music director of this tour, and her band, called the Ladies in Waiting, features herself, Sterlyn Termine, Rose Laguana, and Kami Lujan. (I know it’s a bit unexpected to name the musicians before I name the cast, but the Ladies in Waiting, who are all situated onstage, are every bit as important to this show as the six queens, and I think it’s important that they get their due instead of fading into the background, as Henry’s wives all had to.)

The wives open the show with a rocking number that decries their collective lack of historical individuality and determinedly “adds the prefix,” declaring them to be “Ex-Wives.” We learn after this that we will be watching a kind of concert/contest, with each wife vying to see who was mistreated the worst by the king. (You might think that the beheaded Anne Boleyn would practically win by default, but we are quickly reminded that another of his wives, Catherine Howard, was also beheaded.)

Anyway, each ex-wife gets an opportunity to tell her story in a ballad, a rock number, or some other type of song. Since they sing in order of their marriages, Kristina Leopold’s Catherine of Aragon goes first, leaning hard into the fact that the king dumped her (after more than two decades, one daughter, and five miscarriages) for the younger Anne Boleyn. (“Yeah I’m that sexy,” Anne sings later in explanation.) Catherine’s song, called “No Way,” is an angry response to Henry’s plans to divorce her and put her in a nunnery, and Leopold, backed by the other wives, really lays into him.

Anne, played by Cassie Silva, is played as a social media-savvy, much younger woman whose “Don’t Lose Ur Head” is an adorably winky exploration of how she, one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, was wooed and married by Henry before she too fell victim to the king’s wandering eye. She argues that she only started in on an affair because Henry was already being unfaithful—”What was I meant to do?”—but nothing can prevent her fate. Throughout the remainder of the show, Anne throws her beheading at any other wife who complains of mistreatment, which most of them do.

The exception is Kelly Denise Taylor’s Jane Seymour, “the only one he really loved.” (Yep, that line goes over with the other wives about as well as you’d think.) Taylor’s song, “Heart of Stone,” is a plaintive ballad about falling in love with Henry, giving him a son, and dying young. The pathos inherent in her singing about how “unbreakable” she is makes this song the most passionate and moving in the musical.

After a marvelously quirky, technopop number called “Haus of Holbein,” Anne of Cleves (Danielle Mendoza) tries to complain about her lot, but quickly abandons that effort because she was basically bought off by Henry (who said she “didn’t look like her profile picture,” aka the portrait he had commissioned Holbein to paint). In her song, “Get Down,” she jubilantly celebrates the many gifts he gave her to fade off into the sunset, including her own castle.

Taylor Sage Evans, with a long blonde wig going pink halfway down, subbing in for Alizé Cruz, portrayed the oversexed fifth wife, Catherine Howard, another very young bride who didn’t truly comprehend her role until it was too late. Perky and youthful, Evans made Howard’s infidelity completely understandable—she finally met her true love while married to the increasingly decrepit Henry—but no less fatal. After this, Catherine Parr (Adriana Scalise), the “one who survived” (or, as I used to tell my English classes, “the one who had the good sense to let him die first”) sings a ballad that underscores the hell that this king brought to all of his many wives, “I Don’t Need Your Love.”

Every one of these songs, plus the finale and inevitable encore, is a hummable, resounding, audience-rousing sonic treat enhanced by frequent exhortations of the queens to enjoy ourselves. (No such pleas are really needed, but such coaching is de rigueur at rock concerts, which this show basically is.) When we reach the end, when we hear that each of these women was not just one of six wives but “one of a kind, no category,” we are absolutely pumped to play the soundtrack on the way home…which is precisely what my daughter and I did.

Six is presented by Broadway in Chicago and is playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 2. Randolph St., Chicago, until Jul 14. Performance times vary; check the schedule here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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