‘Six’ review: stage musical is an electrifying experience from first note to last

It’s been a hot minute or three since the opening notes of a stage production gave me goosebumps and, along with them, that amped-up, euphoric sense that something spectacular was about to unfold in the realms of musical theater.

Such was the case at Tuesday’s opening night of Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s “Six,” which begins with a thunder-clap of bone-rattling bass and a series of lightning flashes, each of the six wives of England’s Henry VIII manifesting as a shimmering silhouette.

From there, co-directors Moss and Jamie Armitage take the pop-rock score and the six-woman (plus a pile-driving live band of “Ladies in Waiting”) ensemble through an electrifying production that will make you want to get out of your seat and wave your cigarette lighter while roaring for an encore. (Don’t actually wave your lighter. Also, don’t leave before the post-curtain call mega-mix remix).

The corrective feminist take on Henry’s 16th century reign had a spectacular U.S. premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2019. It moved on to Broadway in March 2020, only to see its opening (and run) postponed for almost two years by COVID. Now “Six” is back with a new cast and a high-energy national tour that takes the fire of the original and puts it on a larger, glitzier stage that allows the show to dial up its Greensleeves-meets-Beyonce aesthetic to 11. When Olivia Donalson’s Anne of Cleves commands “Ok ladies, let’s get in (Re)formation” during the defiant “Get Down,” you’ll want to follow wherever she leads.

As “Six” establishes in its opening number (“Ex-Wives”), history has not been kind to Anne of Cleves or her fellow-wives: Catherine of Aragon (Khaila Wilcoxon), Anne Boleyn (Storm Lever), Jane Seymour (Jasmine Forsberg), Katherine Howard (Didi Romero) and Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo).

They are usually remembered, when they are remembered, solely in the context of their marriage and their deaths, per the lyrics: “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.”

Moss and Marlow reclaim their stories with a book and lyrics that filters 16th century history through 21st century pop culture. It’s not just Beyonce who gets punned upon in this fiercely irresistible musical. The musical influences range from Poison to Greensleeves, the pop culture references flying thick throughout.

Framed as a “contest” to see which wife had it worst, the score provides each wife with a bona fide showstopper. There’s a twist at the end that takes the plot from competition to something much more satisfying.

“Six” also offers spotlight moments for the ensemble as a whole. This includes the glowing, neon frenzy of “Haus of Holbein,” when the women evoke rave culture at its hopped-up wildest, a vision of surreal, swirling color as they explain how Anne of Cleves (died) was sent to marry Henry after he liked her “profile pic” (a portrait by Hans Holbein).

In “Heart of Stone,” Forsberg’s Seymour (died) hits a mega-Lotto jackpot’s worth of money notes in a soaring, shattering ballad that describes both Seymour’s immutable love for Henry and the devastating sorrow of dying in childbirth.

The six wives of Henry VII in the stage musical “Six” are portrayed by Storm Lever (back row), Olivia Donalson and Khaila Wilcoxon (middle row, left to right) and Jasmine Forsberg (front row, from left), Gabriela Carrillo and Didi Romero.|

Joan Marcus

As Boleyn (beheaded), Lever channels a giddy teenager in “Don’t Lose Ur Head,” flirting and dancing and LOL-ing until she’s beheaded, baffled right up to the end at the lethal politics surrounding her. It’s a heartbreaking bop of a song.

One of the most disturbing and the catchiest tunes comes in “All You Wanna Do,” as Romero’s Katherine Howard (beheaded), delivers an increasingly dark tale of being molested at 13 by her music tutor, the first of many much older, much more powerful men who dictated the terms of her short life. In the defiant, upbeat “No Way,” Wilcoxon’s Catherine of Aragon (died) raps about Leviticus with incandescent verve.

And when the contest finally turns to Carrillo’s Catherine Parr (survived), we get a bluesy, jazzy romantic tragedy that describes Parr’s lifelong love Thomas Seymour, and the devastation of being plucked to marry Henry instead.

Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography is on point throughout, her rhythmic, precise movements cleverly illustrating the lyrics and capture their many moods.

Gabriella Slade’s gorgeous costumes merges 16th century with contemporary girl group. The garments are a mix of Shakespearian ruff collars, architectural mini-skirts and the elaborate, fruit-on-a-platter bodices favored by Henry’s court. Emma Bailey’s set design frames the women with light and color, their shapes evoking cathedral windows once Henry takes on the Pope so he can divorce.

And keep an eye out for “Six” superfans. Opening night, there were women dressed as various Queens, their costumes modeled precisely on Slade’s, spikey crowns woven into their hair. Even the audience for this show is fabulous.

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