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Theatre in Review: Six (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)

Anna Uzele (center). l-r: Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly (as Katherine Howard). Photo Joan Marcus

"Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived." Odd words to kick off a musical, no? Or maybe not, as the irresistible opening number ("Ex-Wives") works its way into one's brain. An idea that could have gone wildly wrong, Six is a breezy, irreverent entertainment in which Henry VIII's wronged spouses get to tell their side of the story -- in unabashedly twenty-first century pop terms. Or, as they put it, "All you ever hear and read about/Is our ex and the way it ended/But a pair doesn't beat a royal flush/You're gonna find out how he got unfriended." Or, to put it another way: The Tudor Roses are in the house.

"Remember us from PBS?" purrs Catherine of Aragon, defender of the Catholic faith. Well, no, not in sequined, studded miniskirts and similarly ornamented boots -- the costume designer, Gabriella Slade, has worked with the Spice Girls -- wielding handheld microphones like royal scepters. Products of the 16th century, they are nevertheless fully conversant with iPhones, dating apps, and prenups -- not to mention the fine art of throwing shade. Jane Seymour, trying to defend Henry, insists that he wasn't as uncaring as he sometimes seemed. An irritated Anne Boleyn snaps, "Yeah actually come to think of it, there was this one really cute time where I had a daughter, and he chopped my head off."

Because these ladies are nothing if not assertive, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss -- co-authors of the book and score -- have framed the evening as a competition, with each wife vying to be considered the most put-upon by Henry. Think of it as The Real Housewives of Hampton Court, without anyone throwing chardonnay in a rival's face. Instead, each gets the chance to strut her stuff, making her case to posterity. Marlow and Moss, Cambridge graduates, have done their homework and they effortlessly transform centuries-old political and religious intrigue into dance-tastic fun. (Check out the remarkably detailed characters sketches in the program, although one doubts that Anne of Cleves' "queenspirations" include Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. But as the characters would say, whatever.)

Basically a concert spiced with lively, knowing catfights, loosely tethered to an arc tracing the ladies' dawning sense of self-worth, Six knows exactly what it wants to do and how to go about it. Moss and her co-director Jamie Armitage have assembled a right royal pack of queens, with talent and attitude to spare, especially when executing Carrie-Anne Ingrouille's high-strutting, hip-swinging choreography. To my eyes, there are two standouts: Andrea Macasaet's Anne Boleyn is a petite Renaissance party girl, possessed of lethal way with a wisecrack. She also has one of the catchiest numbers, the inevitably titled "Don't Lose Ur Head." ("Tried to elope/But the Pope said 'nope'/Our only hope was/Henry/He got a promotion/Caused a commotion/Set in motion/The C of E.") Brittney Mack's Anne of Cleves is nonplussed at being rejected by Henry for not living up to the Hans Holbein portrait. ("I mean, it's the usual story, isn't it: the savvy, educated young princess deemed repulsive by a wheezing, wrinkled, ulcer-riddled, man twenty-four years her senior.") So, making the best of it, she doubles down on her gold-digging ways, living in style at Richmond Castle without a pesky husband to manage.

But that's not to dismiss Adrianna Hicks, a fed-up Catherine of Aragon, authoritatively informing Henry that she is not to be traded in for a younger model; Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour, injecting some warmth and feeling into the proceedings with the ballad "Heart of Stone;" and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr, the surviving queen, who stages a consciousness-raising session that unites the ladies and cues the roof-rattling finale. At the performance I attended, understudy Courtney Mack was on as Katherine Howard, deftly navigating "All You Wanna Do," her character's account of multiple betrayals at the hands of men. There had better be some young musical theatre writers turning out vehicles for these abundant talents; we're going to need them.

A modestly scaled show, Six nevertheless benefits from a kicky, amusing production design. Emma Bailey's set surrounds the cast in an LED wall that, on cue, produces Gothic arched windows, ecclesiastical symbols, and the show's title, when it isn't executing colorful, eye-catching chases. Lighting designer Tim Deiling opts, appropriately, for full concert-touring style, with moving units concealed in every possible location, pouring out whole palettes of saturated color; he takes full advantage of each song's rhythmic underpinnings to create a cascade of effects. Paul Gatehouse's sound design is wonderfully crisp and intelligible, the one possible exception being the number "Haus of Holbein," which can be chalked up to intricate lyrics delivered at a frantic tempo.

Best of all, Six is an original musical, with a wildly novel concept, put together by a young creative team, many of them in their twenties. This is how musical theatre moves forward, not by recycling yesterday's hits but by applying fresh thinking and up-to-date wit to a seemingly unlikely subject. No wonder the show is striking a chord with audiences worn down by the pandemic and starved for live entertainment. Is Six a musical for the ages? Possibly not. Is it the musical that Broadway needs right now? Verily. --David Barbour

(8 October 2021)

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