Herstory remix'd: Tudor wives have their say in electrifying 'Six'
"Six" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
The sensation that is "Six" -- the pop, rock and hip-hop musical about King Henry VIII's wives -- received a rapturous response from the opening-night crowd as its pandemic-delayed national tour commenced Tuesday at Chicago's CIBC Theatre.
The audience roared as the curtain parted for the Tudor queens, who strode onto the stage with crowns securely in place and microphones raised to deliver a scorching, arena-concert extravaganza during which each recalls her traumatic, turbulent, often truncated tenure as the monarch's bride.
The response wasn't so much welcome, as a welcome home for the hit show, whose 2019 North American premiere took place at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The show's Broadway opening, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic but with its CST cast in place, occurred last fall.
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss' songs are as delicious as ever and the puns haven't lost their punch. As electrifying today as it was three years ago, the touring production boasts the same top-notch design of the original: Tim Deiling's brilliant concert-style lighting; Emma Bailey's courtly, ultramodern set; and Gabriella Slade's dazzling, jewel-toned, metal-studded costumes, which are as subversive as they are sexy. Add a cast every bit as majestic as their predecessors and you've got the makings of one hot show.
It unfolds as a competition over which queen "was dealt the worst hand/the queen with the most hardships to withstand," with the winner taking over as frontwoman for The Ladies in Waiting, "Six's" rockin' onstage power quartet.
But don't for a moment imagine these ex-queens of 16th-century England -- immortalized in the schoolyard rhyme: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived -- are throwing themselves a pity party. This savvy, self-aware show by composer/lyricist/writers is too smart for that. Rather, they're reclaiming their historical place independent of their husband. Stepping out of the shadow cast by Henry (whose reign was eclipsed by Elizabeth I, his daughter with Anne Boleyn and apt subject for a sequel, yes?), the six push back against the misogyny and patriarchy that victimized them. In the able hands of Marlow and Moss (who co-directed the show with Jamie Armitage), these royals are victims no more.
Expertly backed by conductor/keyboardist Jo Ann Daugherty, bassist Janetta Goines, guitarist Rose Laguana and drummer Paige Durr, the regal sextet are superbly portrayed by powerhouse performers.
Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first and longest-wived (who he divorced after nearly 24 years to wed the Boleyn girl) is played by Khaila Wilcoxon in full-on Queen Bey mode. (For the record, each character has a pop diva "queenspiration" listed in the program). Wilcoxon is unrelenting in the best possible way. Her ferocious performance of Catherine's anti-divorce anthem "No Way" will echo in your head for days.
Storm Lever delivers decapitation quips like a pro as the sassy, "sorry, not sorry" Anne Boleyn (for whom Henry broke with the Catholic Church), who lost her head after being accused of adultery. As Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to Henry's son, Jasmine Forsberg deftly handles the vocal pyrotechnics the glorious power ballad "Heart of Stone" demands.
Olivia Donalson plays self-described "queen of the castle" Anna of Cleves, who lived luxuriously after Henry divorced her when she didn't resemble Hans Holbein's famed portrait. Donalson is a delight, reveling in her good fortune in the gleefully affirming "Get Down." As the naive Katherine Howard (Henry's youngest wife and the second accused of adultery and beheaded), the perky Didi Romero is the prototypical pop princess who's been manipulated and abused by older men her entire life. Her Top-40-inspired "All You Wanna Do" is among the show's most infectious tunes and will resonant long after the curtain comes down.
The contest concludes with a touching song about love and sacrifice beautifully sung by Gabriela Carrillo, as proto-feminist Catherine Parr (Henry's last wife). The discerning Catherine urges the women to scrap the contest and redefine themselves apart from the husband they had in common. Women rewriting herstories. The result is a rousing finale ecstatically received.
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Location: CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through July 3
Running time: About 80 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Paid lots nearby
Rating: For teens and older
COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination or negative test and masking required