Hamilton has spoiled us. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece of music and lyrics has taken pop-centric historic adaptations to new heights, and any that may come after it have large shoes to fill. Such is the case with Six, a musical making its North American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
From the creative duo Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who take co-credit for the show’s music, lyrics and book, Six is a raucous, rocking concert featuring all six of Henry VIII’s wives as they recount their time with the monarch and how each relationship ultimately ended. Moss teams up with Jamie Armitage to direct this iteration, which features a diverse cast with one very important thing in common: killer pipes. Each woman is decked out in head-to-toe sequins, leather and platform shoes (costumes by Gabriella Slade) that would give any pop star a run for her money; and they’re backed up by the all-female band on stage with them. Energy is at an 11 from the get-go, as the women come bounding out for an opening number reminiscent of Chicago‘s “Cell Block Tango,” listing off the ways each relationship ended: divorce, beheaded, death, etc., etc.
Six premiered in 2017 at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and has since toured around the UK before making its debut here in Chicago. None of the cast from those early iterations is still a part of the ensemble, but that’s of little concern. The six women of the show’s title—Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly, Anna Uzele—are reason enough to find time for this one, even if the book from which they perform could use a bit of a polish.
We last saw Adrianna Hicks in July, starring as Celie in the touring production of The Color Purple, a role that called for emotional and vocal range only a true professional could muster. Her light is dimmed slightly in Six, but only because the show smartly allows each woman their moment to shine, and as Catherine of Aragon (Henry’s first wife), her number comes first in the essentially chronological storyline.
Andrea Macasaet plays Anne Boleyn as flirty, flighty and whip-smart, and though her number (“Don’t Lose Ur [sic] Head”) is a bit of an eye-roll, trying far too hard to be “hip,” she delivers some of the show’s best one-liners throughout. Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour is a stroke of casting genius; Seymour is remembered as the wife Henry truly loved, delivering him a son and then promptly dying shortly thereafter. Mueller gets the show’s only ballad, a heartrending number that, despite the actress’s sublime delivery, aspires to be something greater than it actually is.
Brittney Mack and Samantha Pauly are Anna of Cleves and Katherine Howard, respectively; Henry divorced the former, saying she looked nothing like the portrait he’d seen of her, and he beheaded the latter for her promiscuity. Mack gets to have fun with the way Anna seems to get away from the monarch unscathed, getting a settlement of a palace and an income in the divorce, and Pauly’s number makes a swift tonal shift that works well to give the character a bit of depth.
Having waited the longest to have her moment, Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr is a force to be reckoned with, a woman in her prime by the time Henry decides he’s in need of a new wife from the court. Uzele also gets the unenviable task of righting a ship that had, until her number, been sliding dangerously off course. The premise of the show is a contest, pitting each of these six women against each other to see who had it the hardest as a wife of Henry VIII. That’s…interesting? In fact, it’s a bit off-putting, and it’s a premise carried so far through the show that by the time Uzele steps in for the audience and brings the women to their senses, it’s almost too late.
Six gets all kinds of points for flashy production value and fantastic casting; I’d listen to these women sing the phone book. There are moments to love throughout, and surely no one will walk out of the theater being anything less than entertained, right down to the Joseph-like medley at curtain call. But audiences looking to be wowed by a narrative that upends well-worn historical tropes, one that smartly pairs sharp lyrics with memorable melodies may leave a bit disappointed. The likes of Hamilton have set a high bar for shows that come after it, and with this effort at least, Marlow and Moss are no Miranda.
Six continues in the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, extended through August 4. Running time is 80 minutes. Tickets are $32-$62 for performances Tuesday-Sunday.
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