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Getting your head lopped off is viewed as the ultimate act of patriarchal slut-shaming in the frothy new musical Six. This is definitely a history of the English monarchy for people who found the Dynasty-style salaciousness of The Tudors too highbrow, and your enjoyment may depend on how far puberty is behind you. The phenomenon that grew from fringe novelty to London smash and global sensation — let’s avoid the word “viral” — arrives on Broadway with a robust fan base already in place.
That’s evident from the hysterical squeals with which young women and junior gays greet the half-dozen talented performers the instant they take the stage, appearing out of a thicket of smoke decked out in Early Renaissance gladiatorial chic. The show was originally set to open March 12, 2020, the night Broadway went dark in a bid to curb the COVID-19 outbreak. Now it finally arrives as the first new musical since the extended shutdown, still shiny and precision-drilled after a year and a half’s delay.
Simultaneously clever and jejune, it’s the brainchild of writing team Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, and was first hatched in college as a 2017 project of Cambridge’s Musical Theatre Society for submission to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Very much Hamilton-lite in its appropriation of an anachronistic pop vernacular and contemporary attitudes to re-examine history, this is also a spawn of the Time’s Up era in its mandatory reframing of a female-centric narrative separated from the male gaze.
This latter aspect seems a tad forced and opportunistic. It’s as if the authors want to have it both ways, notably in their treatment of Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly). Traditionally viewed as a promiscuous temptress, she’s depicted here with a pink, Ariana Grande-esque topknot and a Barbie bod, boasting, “Ever since I was a child, I’d make the boys go wild.” In her solo, “All You Wanna Do,” she recounts learning about “dynamics” at age 13 from her music teacher, then scatters a trail of double entendres about sexual experience as she retraces her upward path from lady-in-waiting to wife No. 5. When Henry’s bad temper and his gross friends cause her to seek the friendship of a kind courtier, she flips the perspective to point up the pattern of predatory male behavior that landed her on the chopping block.
That’s certainly as legitimate a reading of history as anything else in this all-singing, all-dancing Tudor History for Dummies, though Six lacks the substance to tap into the debate about men abusing their power for sexual coercion with any seriousness.
The musical is more persuasive when it’s in winking, insouciant mode, as is the case with the delicious Anne Boleyn, played by diminutive comic firecracker Andrea Macasaet as a gleefully chirping, selfie-snapping mean girl who just wants to have fun. “Sorry, not sorry,” sings the sassy homewrecker, with a nod to Demi Lovato in “Don’t Lose Ur Head.”
She recounts snatching Henry away from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), whose protestations in the punchy “No Way” make amusing work of her thankless marriage; she was shipped over from Spain at 16 and spent seven years in prison when her originally intended royal spouse inconveniently croaked. Catherine’s devotion can’t halt Anne’s determination as she brings about England’s break with the Vatican. “Everybody chill / It’s totes God’s will,” sings Macasaet with the kind of blithe self-justification that made Boleyn a nationally popular choice for execution.
Marlow and Moss (the latter also co-directed with Jamie Armitage) drop in frequent references to contemporary pop hits, from The Spice Girls to Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé. (The opening number, “Ex-Wives,” goes a more traditional route, weaving in the melody from “Greensleeves.”) And each of the six wives is given a “Her-story” biographical fact file in the Playbill, along with two popular music artists apiece credited as her “Queenspiration.”
The influence of some of these is more evident than others; the songs have infectious beats and lyrics that milk laughs out of liberally sprinkled social media-speak. So if you LOL at queens of yore singing “LOL,” this is the show for you. But aside from “Heart of Stone,” the pretty power ballad given to Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), a Debbie Downer who died from childbirth complications after producing an heir for Henry, the pastiche pop tunes have a samey sound that makes them blur into one. Rhymes like “Aragon/paragon” generally are closer to Scary Spice than Stephen Sondheim, with some, like “funny/nunnery,” that make your ears bleed.
What distinguishes the signature numbers primarily is the sparky personality imprinted on each wife by the hardworking, appealing performers, all of whom dance and sing like Energizer bunnies with attitude. Well, all except demure Jane, who belts up an emotional storm, but as Anne takes cruel pleasure pointing out, “can’t dance.” Neither Mueller nor choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille do much to disprove that, keeping her tucked away in back for many of the group formations.
The minimal narrative thrust comes from a contest to decide which of the women was the most luckless, and therefore earns the right to star billing on the “Divorced Beheaded Live!” tour, as well as the crown of uppermost historical importance.
“The Queen who was dealt the worst hand / The Queen with the most hardships to withstand / The Queen for whom it didn’t really go as planned / Shall be the one to lead the band.” It’s Britain’s Got Talent-meets-RuPaul’s Drag Race. That band, by the way, is a quartet of decibel-busting female musicians called The Ladies in Waiting, led by music director Julia Schade on keys.
Each wife gets to state her case in chronological order, so following Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, who sanctimoniously reminds the others she was “the only one he truly loved,” comes the German import, Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack, delightful).
Ahead of her own number, Anna gets a rowdy intro with “Haus of Holbein,” a thumping house-music tour of the famed painter’s studio, during which we learn that Henry went shopping for a new bride in the artist’s portrait gallery. Think Tinder in oil and tempera. Having chosen Anna, he summoned her to England and promptly declared that she didn’t live up to his expectations. Rude.
“You, you said that I had tricked ya / Cos I, I didn’t look like my profile picture,” sings Anna in one of the funnier songs, “Get Down.” In that hip-hop ditty, she refuses to be defined as a spurned woman, instead pointing out how her savvy handling of the situation allowed her to be queen of her own castle. She’s a feisty gold digger with a taste for bling that gets put on display in a fabulous reveal by costume designer Gabriella Slade.
Next up comes Katherine Howard, whose encounter with the ax makes way, finally, for “the one who survived,” Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele). Her song, “I Don’t Need Your Love,” shifts the tone of the show back into reflective mode as the twice-widowed noblewoman recalls being forced to deny her true soul mate once Henry’s wandering eye had settled on her.
Parr’s onerous task, which makes the character even drippier than matronly Jane, is to point up the retrograde ethics of rivalrous women engaged in a bitchy battle for supremacy when they should be celebrating their solidarity and reaffirming their identities as something other than appendages to Henry. I’m all for responsible messaging, but this is such flimsy Feminism 101 that it feels almost like an afterthought. It might stir some sisterhood pride in impressionable tween girls, but it’s too facile to give this 80-minute sketch any semblance of substance.
Not that the high-energy show hasn’t been dressed up with plenty of flash for Broadway, mostly courtesy of costumer Slade and lighting designer Tim Deiling, who alternates between arena-style concert beams and droll LED stylizations of period art, architecture and heraldry. And set designer Emma Bailey knows you can’t go wrong with a pop-up throne or gold confetti cannons.
But this kind of campy conceit was executed with at least as much invention and more genuine charm 16 years ago in the off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz, in which a Christian boy band wrestled with their souls as they spoofed the testosterone-pumped teen sensations of the ’90s. Six is probably closer to a three, but it’s entertaining enough as bubbly pop confections go. By the time the inevitable curtain-call remix cranks up, there should be no shortage of young audiences ready to scream, “Yass, queens!”
Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York
Cast: Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly, Anna Uzele
Directors: Lucy Moss, Jamie Armitage
Music, lyrics and book: Toby Marlow, Lucy Moss
Set designer: Emma Bailey
Costume designer: Gabriella Slade
Lighting designer: Tim Deiling
Sound designer: Paul Gatehouse
Music director: Julia Schade
Orchestrations: Tom Curran
Music supervisor: Joe Beighton
Choreographer: Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
Executive producer: Lucas McMahon
Presented by Kenny Wax, Wendy & Andy Barnes, George Stiles, Kevin McCollum, in association with Chicago Shakespeare Theater
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