Guest review by Anne Siegel.
Make no mistake; while most of the real-life wives of Henry VIII ended their days in misery (or worse), their 21st century counterparts are wiser, wittier and full of attitude. They also make great music together. That’s the message of Six, which opened on Tuesday at the CIBC Theatre with enough offstage fanfare to resemble a royal coronation.
Chicago has every right to claim this international phenomenon as its own. Its pre-Broadway tryout started here three years ago in the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. From its North American premiere in Chicago, the show went on to gain fame and glory in London and on Broadway (both locales are still running productions of their shows). The Broadway opening was delayed for a time due to the pandemic; but it’s now playing to sold-out crowds.
Now that the national tour of Six has launched, where better to start than back in Chicago? Like many long-running tours that have set up shop here for months, the run of Six won’t leave until July 3. But leave it must, as the remainder of the two-year, coast-to-coast tour already has been announced. Upcoming tour dates are scheduled in Washington DC, Las Vegas, Tucson,and Miami, with many more on the roster. The musical also has two international tours: one in the UK, and the other in Australia.
So the welcome that Six is receiving now in Chicago is more of a “welcome home.” The original format remains, but the show has been trimmed a bit. However, it seems not to have lost a bit of its dazzling theatrics, blazing light show or lush vocal harmonies among the queens. Six still comes across with the force of a blow-out-the-amps rock concert, occasionally softened for a ballad or two.
During Tuesday’s opening, each queen was greeted with an uproarious outburst from the audience. Judging from the number of audience members dressed as kings, queens (or even wearing duplicates of the cast’s outfits), it’s clear that each queen already has established her own following. Speaking directly to the fans, the Six cast repeatedly calls out the city’s name, as in, “Are you ready, Chicago?”
If this show is staged as a concert, it’s also a competition. The queens ask the audience to rate them according to who tells the most pathetic tale. With the aid of an onstage, all-female rock band, the queens then step forward individually to sing a signature number. Essentially, the “queen who was dealt the worst hand / Shall be the one to lead the band,” goes one of the show’s lyrics. Each of the songs is loosely tied to a pop music genre. (In my opinion, the opening song, ‘Ex-Wives,’ which is sung by all of the queens, rates as the top tune. The final production number, “Six,” also ranks right up there).
The queens go in order, with first wife Catherine of Aragon (Khaila A. Wilcoxon) starting things off. She mentions her position as the queen who was married the longest. Then comes Anne Boleyn (Storm Lever), followed by Jane Seymour (Jasmine Forsberg), who died in childbirth and claimed that the king loved her the most. Then there’s German-born Anna of Cleves (Olivia Donaldson), Katherine Howard (Didi Romero) and, finally, the survivor Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo). As each queen delivers her number, the remaining queens become her back-up dancers and singers. Everyone remains onstage for the entire 80 minutes, as does the band, of course.
For the uninitiated, the casting for Six takes its cue from another historical musical, Hamilton. The historic queens are represented not only by white women (as were the 15th century originals) but now display a diversity of racial backgrounds. The queens of Six also represent a range of physical shapes and sizes. Every cast of Six follows this same format, no matter where the show is performed.
Creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss started writing this musical while students at Cambridge University in 2017. They wondered why the queens were typically remembered for their deaths: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. What emerged from their creative minds is a completely entertaining production, with numerous one-liners, snide remarks from one queen to another and, in general, a large dose of attitude.
Poor Henry VIII is never seen, but he receives more than a few ego-deflating references from his exes. Six is definitely girl-power on steroids.
The musical benefits enormously from its pop-princess outfits (by Gabriella Slade), which link contemporary fashion with traces of 15th century design. Likewise, Tim Deiling’s lighting ranges from eye-popping flashes of color to a backdrop that conforms to the outlines of English court architecture.
Complementing the book are Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s sassy dance moves, accompanied by incredibly catchy tunes and sometimes ear-splitting vocals. The ballad sung by Jane Seymour “Heart of Stone,” is a welcome respite from the hard-core “Hans of Holbein,” in which all the queens don glow-in-the-dark sunglasses and collar ruffs. They jump around the stage and rap about a portrait made of Anna of Cleves that apparently was much prettier than the lady herself. The king, unamused, quickly divorced Cleves and set out to find her successor.
Despite its nonsensical premise, Six does a surprisingly good job of sticking to the facts associated with each of Henry’s wives. It wouldn’t hurt theatergoers preparing to attend a performance to brush up beforehand on this historical period (or at least read the historical notes in the show’s program). In any event, the goal of Six is to ensure that everyone has a great time. They needn’t worry, especially in Chicago.
Six continues at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., through July 3. Tickets are $35-$119 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission. The theater requires proof of vaccination and mask-wearing at all times indoors. For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She has served on the organization’s executive committee and has held a number of committee chairmanships. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites.
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