Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss (Music, Lyrics & Book)
“Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.”
These six words quickly conjure up for millions of people around the globe – folks who read even a bit of history, watched a few Netflix series, and/or played a few games of trivia at a local bar – the six wives of a king well known five hundred years later for his philandering, desperate need for a male heir, and frequent trips to the altar by hook or by crook. They are also the opening lyrics by the six ex-queens in a musical that seeks to turn ‘his-story’ into ‘her-story.’
Premiering at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s SIX has since literally swept the continents by storm with its rock concert format where no male – including Henry VIII – is on stage in band or cast. Currently on stage in London, Sydney, and New York (soon also in Seoul, South Korea); on two different Norwegian cruise lines; and on tours in the U.K. and the U.S., this hit, multiple-award-winning musical now explodes in bright lights and ear-shattering rock beats on San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre’s stage as BroadwaySF’s latest tour offering. As witnessed by the packed, fully pumped-up, mixed-aged crowd on opening night, San Francisco is more than ready to welcome these once-again-live queens as they garner incredible amounts of energy and talent to sing, dance, and tell their sides of Henry VIII’s legacy.
After an electrifying explosion of hip-pumping, arm-flailing, and head-popping in their opening number of “Ex-Wives” where the six blast forth in rock concert style their individual introductions, one-by-one they explain to us that “we’re not here to have fun,” “we’re here to settle a score.” Employing with no shame a number of age-old cliches, the exes explain they want us to help answer once and for all who among them is “the queen of the castle,” “the rose among the thorns,” and “the queen who was dealt the worst hand.” Each is to spill forth her sad story in modern rock blaze and bluster, with each doing so in the style of various super-star artists from Beyoncé to Rihanna, Britney, Adele, and more.
And make no mistake about it: These queens reign supreme as modern-day rock stars. They are no longer playing second fiddle to a now-dead king as each steps forward to win us over with enough can’t-miss confidence, comic cynicism, and candescent charisma to command completely her time in the spotlight. Each voice is worthy of this week’s Billboard Hot 100, No. 1; and each can slide, jerk, wave, step, kick, and bump in ways that are eye-popping and jaw-dropping. As they vie to out-do the other five with their tales of martyrdom at the hands of their common, once-husband – sometime coming to near fisticuffs among their barrages of sharply pointed insults – they also step up with willingness and gusto to serve as a back-up group to each queen’s starring number. Consistently, the queens execute flawlessly the incredibly complex, rapid-paced, all-body-demanding choreography of Carrie-Anne Ingrouille and under the co-direction of Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage.
The defiance of first-and-longest-in-duration wife, Catherine of Aragon, who refused to grant Henry an annulment after delivering a girl but never a boy baby, is sung with full, Beyoncé/Shakira-like, back-bending, oft-crazy-faced swagger by Khaila Wilcoxon in “No Way.” Storm Lever is a high, almost squeaky voiced Anne Boleyn who mocks the dumped Catherine, complains about the unfaithful Henry, and defends her own proneness to flirt at court in a hilarious leading up to losing her head (“Don’t Lose Ur Head”). As the wife that Henry probably loved the most (but also the only one that provided him a male heir), Jane Seymour’s turn to convince she is the one most to be pitied begins in smokey, sultry tones with a country music flavoring, sung by Jasmine Forsberg in a manner highly reminiscent of Adele; but as she continues to sing of a fault-filled husband whose love she knows was based mostly on her fertility, her “Heart of Stone” rendering soars to multi-octave, spine-chilling heights in the song’s climax, earning the evening’s most sustained, audience applause.
An absolutely flamboyant, confident, and uproarious Anna of Cleves (a wife imported from Germany sight-unseen except by a too-flattering portrait) is superbly played in rough-and-tough style of moves to match her take-notice vocals by Olivia Donalson. Didi Romero sings in Brittany Spears style the flirty, fiery life story of Katherine Howard (“All You Wanna Do”) of the many past beaus that eventually cost her a head; but her story takes a sudden, Me-Too turn in tone as too many hands continue to touch her too-available body. Providing the final, equally impressive story is Gabriela Carrillo as the sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who sings beautifully in swirling, swooping notes of the one true love she gave up in order to be queen (“I Don’t Need Your Love”).
These queens are greatly supported and enhanced by an on-stage band of four (identified by the royals as their “ladies in waiting”) – a band that sports no maleness and that easily could headline its own evening of ready-to-dance music. The massive lighting scheme designed by Tim Deiling highlights in so many clever and astonishing ways each song and story while always reminding us in spots and flashes that yes at its heart, this is a rock concert.
Particularly thrilling and dazzling as well as telling in subtle touches are the costumes designed by Gabriella Slade. Fashioned as the kind of spangled, sparkling show-stoppers often worn by the real-life pop stars they are emulating, the costumes include fun clues. Bejeweled chokers are worn on the necks of those that lost their heads. The two that survived Henry’s death wear shorts or pants rather than the short skirts donning the others. The color of green in Anne Bolyen’s outfit reminds us that Henry supposedly wrote “Greensleeves” for her (a song whose notes we more than once hear during the evening). And the spiked crown of Catherine of Aragon quite resembles that of another French-born lady, the Statue of Liberty.
While the eighty-five-minute, no-intermission evening often does appear and sound more like a rock concert than a Broadway musical, there is a powerful message conveyed in the collective stories and how history has treated these women of old. There is also an important, collective transformation that these fiercely competing queens make in their stand-on-your-feet-and-clap finale, “Six,” as they re-shape their legacies and create their own ‘happily ever after’ ending (or at least, happily for six, final minutes). Maybe, exiting audience members will remember these queens not just as ex-wives of one big fat, pompous man but as individuals in their own rights.
In the end, what we see is a fierce force of female fortitude celebrated on stage with women of color providing a hard, rock beat that has too long been associated with mostly only all-male, all-white groups and bands. Six will never be remembered, in my opinion, as one of the great musicals of the modern stage; but still, SIX is fun, sometimes funny, and always feisty in its pop-and-rock-music delivery.
Rating: 4 E
SIX continues through March 19, 2023 in touring production brought to San Francisco by BroadwaySF at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street. Tickets are available online at https://broadwaysf.com/.
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus