Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As a self-proclaimed "pop concert musical," iSix is an amalgamation of some of the strongest currents in popular culture today: reality TV talent shows with visuals that rival Las Vegas for glitz; music drenched in rap-based rhymes and rhythms; messages of female empowerment; power ballads that pull all the stops; frank references to sex; and a notable likeness to that cultural behemoth Hamilton. Like Hamilton, Six aims to provide a history lesson in the form of an eye-popping, fast-paced entertainment that would seem geared to the youth market, yet is rich and literate enough to also reach well beyond that targetand it succeeds big time. Not to the same degree as Hamilton, which is an insanely high bar to meet, but absolutely enough to place Six in the hit column.
You may be wondering, six of what? That's six as in the number of King Henry VIII's wives. Henry was born in 1491 and took his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1509, the same year he ascended the throne. That marriage was annulled in 1533, and from 1533 until his death in 1547, Henry married five more times. All but the last, Catherine Parr, who survived him, ended with a beheading, another type of death, or divorce.
We know all six of Henry's wives by nameCatherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleaves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parrand by the fate that befell each as Henry left them behind. But what else do we know about these women? Six contends that they were not ciphers, notable only as marital property, but had their own stories, each worth hearing. And we know even less about the wives of other kings. Go back before 1900. Can you name any wives of the English kings before then? Not unlike in our own time, when gruesome deaths or marital discord grab tabloid headlines making those involved celebrities, it seems we only know these six women because of Henry's sordid history as their husband. Six wants to correct that and implicitly urges us to similarly unveil the real stories of all women whose lives lie buried beneath the dominance of a man.
The book, music and lyrics for Six were written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who were both students at . Their book is astoundingly clever, their lyrics brimming with wit. The music, it must be said, has a bit of the sameness that one will find if listening to pop songs played in succession, but it all works well to power the forceful vocals that are the centerpiece of the show, and make for great dancing, propped by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille's pulsating choreography.
Marlow and Moss's conceit is to bring the six wives back to life, jettisoned from the 16th to the 21st century, and put them together as a female rock group, The Ex-Wives. The four members of the show's outstanding band, on stage throughout, are also women. We ostensibly have shown up for an Ex-Wives concert. When the six group members, each with her own diva credentials, start to argue about who should be front-woman, they turn to us, the audience, to choose. Each will present her own saga about her life with Henry, and then we will decide who deserves to take the lead. It is a brilliant device that allows each wife to shine in her own number, delivered in bold, highly emotive form with the others doing back-up singing and dancing like their lives depend on it.
To add to the fun and to help us set the wives apart, each is modeled after one of today's bright lights among female pop singers. Hence, Catherine of Aragon draws inspiration from Beyoncé and Shakira, Katherine Howard is based on Ariana Grande and Britney Spears, and so on. It helps to have some acquaintance with these popular vocalists, but even without prior knowledge of their work, the differences in how each wife delivers her musical entry in the competition is notable, and reflects the nature of the experience they had at the hands of King Henry.
Though Six is a short show, clocking in at 75 minutes, the entire cast is stage the whole time, singing and dancing with few let-ups during brief bridge scenes between acts. They work hard, and their work is uniformly fabulous, with all of the vocals receiving, and deserving, immense ovations.
Adrianna Hicks, as Catherine of Aragon, conveys her righteous anger and entitlement with a full-force voice as Henry's longest lasting wife, and his firstthe legality of their annulment was an ongoing source of conflict. Andrea Macasaet, as Anne Boleyn, has the best laugh lines, and the comedy chops to deliver them, hitting the spot time after time, carried through on her solo spot, "Don't Lose UR Head." As Katherine Howard, Samantha Pauley aptly depicts a woman who uses her pretty looks and a sweet voice to sneak up with a bitchy left hookbut then wins us over as she softens to reveal inner pain.
Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr, modeled after Alicia Keys, conveys a unifying sense of wisdom and strength, summed up in her anthemic number "I Don't Need Your Love." Alternate Mallory Maedke will play Jane Seymour for the entire St. Paul run, filling in for Abby Mueller who is sidelined with an injury (but she plans to return when Six hits Broadway). Not to worry, Maedke is wonderful, delivering the show's most all-out emotive number, "Heart of Stone," with the torrential force of Adele. Alternate Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert covered the role of Anna of Cleaves (filling in for Brittney Mack), giving a no-holds-barred performance. Her raunchy "Get Down" (modeled after Nicki Minaj and Rihanna) dispels any doubts about what she gets out of her deal with Henry.
The production moves without ever a pause to catch its breath, forcefully shepherded along by directors Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage, well integrated with the near continuous choreography. Emma Bailey's set design is defined largely by Tim Deiling's lighting, but that lighting is a wonderland of colors blasted out to create a different stage environment for each wife, brightening on and off in a choreography all their own.
Gabriella Slade's costumes are an ingenious mash-up of the Tudor court and a Victoria's Secret runway, incorporating leather, metal plates and studs, vinyl, and flouncy fabrics. Sound designer Paul Gatehouse enables spoken words to be crystal clear, though some of the lyrics are swallowed up by their gritty delivery, even though their message always comes. The volume is loud enough to be certifiably rock music, but not so much that it becomes an assault on the ears.
The crowd at the press opening must have included a large number of fans already sold on Six, ready to cheer favorite characters (actually, at one time or another, they all become favorites) and lip-synching to lyrics already committed to memory. However, I was completely unfamiliar with the music and had no problem getting into to beat and celebratory feeling that permeates the occasion. I was familiar with Henry's six wives, but not so much their backstories.
Six seems destined to have a lot of faithful fans who will save their coins for repeated viewings. Whether or not you are taken by the rock sound, or the reality TV concept, it's something to see if for no other reason than to be conversant in "now" culture. And, in spite of any resistance you may have going in, I'm willing to bet you'll be swept away by the energy, optimism and talent on stage.
Six runs through December 22, 2019, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $108.50 - $45.50. Educator and high school/college student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID, cash only. For tickets and information call 651-224-4222 or go to www.ordway.org. For information on the show, visit www.sixthemusical.com.
Words, Music and Book: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss; Directors: Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage; Choreographer: Carrie-Anne Ingrouille; Scenic Design: Emma Bailey; Costume Design: Gabriella Slade; Lighting Design: Tom Deiling; Sound Design: Paul Gatehouse; Orchestrations: Tom Curran; Music Supervision: Joe Beighton and Roberta Duchak; Conductor: Julia Schade; Chicago Casting: Bob Mason; New York Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Peter Van Dam, CSA; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Stage Manager: Bonnie Panson.
Cast: Adrianna Hicks (Catherine of Aragon), Andrea Macasaet (Anne Boleyn), Brittney Mack (Anna of Cleves), Mallory Maedke (Jane Seymour), Samantha Pauly (Katherine Howard), Anna Uzele (Catherine Parr). Alternates: Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert and Courtney Mack.