Exhilarating concert musical revisits Henry VIII’s wives through a modern lens
By SHARON EBERSON
I come to you a newly anointed loyal subject. Long live the Queens!
For women who have been dead lo these 500 years or so, the queens of SIX are very much alive and high-kicking. The concert musical spits in the eye of history that teaches us how these women died or departed the king, when what matters most is how they lived.
SIX also reminds us that art forms can benefit from a creative shakeup now and then. This unique format – unique, because usually a staged concert version comes after a successful long-form musical – entertains and thrills for 80 nonstop minutes.
The cast of SIX the Musical’s Boleyn Tour, at the Benedum Center March14-19. (Joan Marcus)
The concept of SIX, the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh presentation reigning this week at the Benedum Center, is that it is interactive. It declares a competition among the six wives of the infamous, oft-married Henry VIII. The winner will be the one who suffered the most and make us say, “OK, you had it the worst, poor thing.”
Each Queen sings her story in individualistic styles, courtesy of Tony-winners Tony Marlow and Lucy Marlow (SIX earned eight nominations and two wins, for score and costumes).
In another era, you might have heard a couple of these songs hitting big on pop-rock radio. The original Broadway cast recording – SIX: LIVE ON OPENING NIGHT – debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Cast Album Chart in May and had 3.5 million downloads in its first week.
But to reduce SIX to a “pop” musical, as it is billed. or to describe it as akin to a girl band concert, is unfair to the cleverness of the concept and, if you’ll pardon the expression, its execution.
There’s pop, certainly, with elements of hip-hop and Broadway. And then Amina Faye’s Jane Seymour takes us to church with her tale of woe, Heart of Stone – Seymour, the love of Henry’s life and who loved him in return, died of complications from childbirth.
What looks like a short set list of nine songs plays out as an epic retelling of six complex human beings.
In pursuit of a male heir and his own ravenous appetites, Henry went to great lengths to pull the crown from the heads of one woman in favor of the next. Yet we, the audience, are asked to crown a winner among them.
Of course, choosing a favorite from among these fierce and furious women, and the actresses who play them, is unfair. In fact, SIX is a show that cries out for a “best ensemble“ award. Or how about best sisterhood of divine divas? Certainly, it is that.
For openers, in the song Ex-Wives, we get the first taste of why we are gathered here, in a song with echoes of Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango.”
Zan Berube as Anne Boleyn (center) in the Boleyn Company of SIX. (Joan Marcus)
We are introduced to their fates as queens, in case you missed that history lesson:
Catherine of Aragon (Point Park alum Jana Larell Glover on opening night), divorced. Anne Boleyn (Zan Berube), beheaded. Jane Seymour (Faye), died. Anna of Cleves (Terica Marie), divorced. Katherine Howard (Aline Mayagoitia), beheaded. Catherine Parr (Sydney Parra), survived – she outlived Henry by a year and eight months. During her time as queen, Parr wrote Prayers or Meditations, the first book published in England by a woman under her own name and in the English language.
That’s just one bit of history you may pick up while being swept away in the rock-concert vibe of it all. From the incredibly bedazzled costumes by Gabrielle Slade, the pulsating rhythm of the light design by Tim Deiling and the rocking four-piece onstage band – called “Ladies in Waiting” – the show does scream concert much of the time.
While the music grabs you and does not let go, the stories may move you to tears. So prepare to go in depth while these ladies get down and dirty.
The facts are accurate as far as what can possibly be known about people who lived in the 16th century. However, the lyrics brilliantly turn history on its head with lines like, “You said that I tricked ya / ‘Cause I, I didn’t look like my profile picture.”
That would be Anna of Cleves, who made out great in her divorce. She arrived from Germany on the strength of a flattering portrait by the artist Hans Holbein, but Henry was not impressed with her in person. Marie’s song and dance as Anna, Get Down, is a gleeful romp through rejection and the riches that followed, just to make her go away.
If you’re checking off your scorecard, Anna and Catherine Parr are the Queens who had it pretty good, all things considered, while others in their ex-wives club did not fare as well.
The first Catherine, Queen No. 1, was a deeply religious Spaniard who was briefly married to Henry’s older brother. He died, so, naturally, she was imprisoned and eventually married to teenaged Henry, seven years her junior.
Her song, No Way, gives the swathed-in-gold Glover the opportunity to sparkle as she belts out Catherine’s fate, and make a case for her to be declared the woeful winner. Unable to produce a male heir with Catherine, and told no way she’d agree to go away, Henry also was denied a divorce by the Pope. So what did he do? Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, declared himself the head of the Church of England and dissolved the nation’s monasteries – although he did try unsuccessfully to put Catherine in a convent.
Sydney Parra as Henry’s final wife, Catherine Parr (center), in SIX. (Joan Marcus)
So step aside, Catherine, it’s Anne Boleyn’s turn. Among the best known of Henry’s wives, Anne first turned Henry’s head with her beauty. Then, when no heir arrived within three years, he had her convicted of adultery and beheaded.
Anne is played by Berube as a sort of Baby Spice / Harley Quinn combo – a girly-girl voice, tinged with vengeful resentment. She’s quick to interject, no matter what the other Queens have to say, that she had it roughest.
In Don’t Lose Your Head, she recounts how she undermined Catherine of Aragon (“sorry, not sorry”) but couldn’t keep hers on straight.
Now, up until this point in the concert musical, the Queens have been on their heels, starting with the exhilarating ensemble opener, Ex-Wives. From there, they declared the competition and served as backup dancers/vocalists for Queens Nos. 1 and 2.
Then it was Jane Seymour’s turn, and Faye had the stage while everyone else sat down to watch and listen. Her soulful voice gave pain to the Queen who loved Henry and was loved in return. She gave him a son – Edward – and died from the complications of childbirth two weeks later.
Jane’s lament, to her sister Queens: I didn’t get to watch my son grow up.
So where did Henry go from there? To Germany, where in the Haus of Holbein, we get a few “swipe left” rejects before Anna comes to England, and gets a swipe left of her own.
Up next, Ex-Wife No. 5, Katherine Howard, who was, in essence, family. She was the first cousin of Anne Boleyn, and therefore first cousin once removed of Anne’s daughter, who would become Queen Elizabeth I.
To hear Mayagoitia sing Katherine’s tale is to cringe at the all too familiar story of a pretty girl used as the plaything of many men – the song All You Wanna Do is both catchy and cringeworthy – until she was wed to Henry, most likely as a teenager, but no older than 21. Henry was 49, overweight and often in pain from an old wound.
It was not a good match. Like her cousin, she was found wanting and flirting with other men, and was beheaded after about a year as Queen.
The oft-married Catherine Parr, we learn, was in love with a man named Thomas (Seymour, Jane’s brother). She laments her loss in I Don’t Need Your Love.
It is left to ex-wife No. 6, Parra’s Parr, an educated woman of letters, to wrap up the story and bring harmony to the SIX.
Having found their own voices and told their own stories their way, it was time to unite as they are known – and acknowledge their place in royal history.
The company of SIX the Musical, in the number Haus of Holbein. (Joan Marcus)
I have been preparing to be swept up in the woman power of SIX since listening to the original London cast recording back in 2018 and then getting a sneak peek of the show at BroadwayCon in 2020. Long delayed by the pandemic shutdown, SIX finally opened on Broadway in August of 2021. There were postponements along the way – the result of COVID rearing its ugly head – but SIX is now a Broadway mainstay, filling the Lena Horne Theater to 97-percent capacity last week.
Here in Pittsburgh, it is one of the hottest tickets in town, with shows either sold out or at 1 percent availability.
SIX has clearly struck a nerve, and deservedly so. It’s the whole package of entertainment, so much so that you should enjoy being schooled about these flesh-and-blood women, once held captive to the accounts of others, empowered at last to be seen for the way they lived out their fraught and fascinating lives.
The PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh / Pittsburgh Cultural Trust presentation of “SIX” is at the Benedum Center through March 19. Tickets and details: https://trustarts.org/production/81543/six
Categories: Arts and Ideas, Reviews
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