Wednesday, December 4, 2019

"SIX" at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

The history of the British monarchy has inspired countless works of entertainment, from Shakespeare plays to Netflix series. And now it has inspired a fabulously feminist pop musical. In just over two years, SIX (written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss while students at Cambridge) has gone from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to London's West End to Broadway, where it will premiere next spring after wrapping up the month-long run at the Ordway. Structured as a pop concert, SIX allows the six wives of Henry VIII to tell their own stories. This musical couldn't have come at a better time, when we're hungry for women's stories, for women to tell their own stories instead of being defined by men, as history has defined these six women by their marriage to a king. SIX's reputation precedes it; young musical theater fans in the know have been obsessively listening to the London cast recording for months, and the US production is surrounded by huge buzz. The opening night audience was ready for this show, responding enthusiastically to their favorite moments that they knew were coming. I knew nothing about the show going into it, and was hugely impressed by this smart, funny, clever, modern, fresh, and wildly entertaining musical. It's a rare thing that we get to see the next Broadway sensation in Minnesota before they see it in New York, and #TCTheater music-theater fans would be wise not to miss this chance.

The 75-minute show is so jam-packed with clever wordplay that I'm certain I didn't catch all of it the first time around. But one word sticks out - historemix. SIX is a remix of history; it takes the facts historians have told us about these women, and mixes them up with modern pop culture to give us this new HERstory. Each of the six women is inspired by a modern woman of pop music (most of which I am too pop illiterate to get) as they sing their story in one song to prove that they've suffered the most hardship at the hands of the king and should be declared the Queen of this group of queens. Conveniently there's a nice bit of symmetry in the fates of Henry's wives; as they sing, they were "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived." If this competition among women about the tragedies in their lives seems a little uncool, well, let's just say that this show is too clever to fall into that trap, and turns it on its head. While they act like they're competing, these women are actually celebrating and supporting each other.

the original US cast of SIX
(photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater)
The North American version of SIX premiered in Chicago this summer and played a few other places before stopping in St. Paul this month. The Chicago cast will continue on to Broadway, and these women are all incredibly talented and refreshingly diverse. And fortunately the three alternates are just as talented; on opening night two of them seamlessly took the stage as part of this powerhouse girl group. Adrianna Hicks is the fierce de facto leader of the group as Henry's first and longest wife Catherine of Aragon; Andrea Macasaet is the fiercely funny comic relief (with incredible vocal control in her seemingly silly song) as the most famous wife Anne Boleyn; Mallory Maedke (filling in for injured cast member Abby Mueller for the entire Ordway run) brings a sweetness to wife #3 Jane Seymour, reported as the only one Henry really loved; Nicole Kyong-Mi Lambert (an alternate subbing for Brittney Mack) is fun and light-hearted as Anna of Cleves, who's pretty happy with her divorced life post-Henry; Samantha Pauly shows surprising depth in Katherine Howard, beheaded for infidelity, but as the subversively brilliant song "All You Wanna Do" shows, she's much more than just the shallow pretty one; and finally, Anna Uzele brings it all home as final wife Catherine Parr, an accomplished woman of her time.

This production brings back together the artistic team from the UK production, including directors Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage. Choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille has created some really sharp and fabulous modern choreography that contributes to the feeling that this is the most awesome pop concert you've ever seen (caveat: I've never attended a pop concert). Costume designer Gabriella Slade has dressed the women in outfits any current pop diva would be thrilled to wear, but with hints of the time period. The relatively simple multi-level stage set allows these talented women to be the focus, with the assistance of some dynamic and exciting lighting (scenic design by Emma Bailey, lighting design by Tim Deiling). And best of all, the awesome four-piece all female band (dubbed the "ladies in waiting"), led by Julia Schade on keyboard, is in full view on the stage and even get an introduction or two during the show. This entire production is a showcase of female talent and sisterhood.

I've seen a lot of comparisons of SIX to Hamilton. I can see the similarity, in the way that Hamilton uses the popular vernacular and music of the day and a diverse cast to tell a historical story. But despite the revolutionary nature of this concept, Hamilton is actually quite a traditional musical in terms of its structure and format. SIX is not. There's no story arc or plot; it's more of a character study as told in concert form, similar to Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Altar Boyz. I love the use of this unconventional format, and I love that the creators use the time they need to tell the story, in this case 75 minutes, and don't try to stretch the concept to a more traditional 2-3 hour length with a 20 minute intermission to sell more concessions, which is what it often feels like intermission is for. They knew what they wanted to say, they knew how they wanted to say it, and they did it in the time and format required, staying true to the concept as the popularity of the show has grown. And they've done it with huge success.

Your next music-theater obsession SIX is playing at the Ordway Center on beautiful and festive Rice Park in downtown St. Paul through December 22. See it now before it becomes the next big thing on Broadway! (Click here for more info and to purchase tickets, and click here for a collection of articles, videos, and more about the Queens.)