It takes a diva to be a queen. Henry VIII should know. He married six times, making six women queens. The electrifying musical Six turns history on its head to give bold voice to “herstory” in this fast-paced romp through the Tudor court. Backed by a pumping four-piece all-female rock band appropriately named The Ladies in Waiting (is that “Greensleeves” I hear on synthesizer?), Six leans into the pop princess phenomenon with a heavy dose of girl power positivity. Enough, in fact, to leave the audience screaming for more. The only thing missing at the breathless curtain call was phone lights begging for an encore.
Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, the writing team, leaned in hard to 21st-century pop diva sensibilities, channeling Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Adele, Shakira, and the queen bee herself, Beyoncé. Moss and Marlow, both educated at Cambridge University, mostly do right by these queens, illuminating their lesser-known lives without over-complicating the complexities of the Tudor political machinations on marrying for power and alliance, and, of course, a resulting male heir.
Six is staged as a rock-concert-cum-competition, and after a bold shout-out — “Welcome, DC!!” and cheers — each of these six rhinestoned and crowned queens belts out power-pop ballads, pulses to EDM, raps to hip hop, punches out pop-punk, and simpers to sexy beats. The cri de coeur of these bejeweled and bespangled women — “Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived” — asserts their personality as they relish the spotlights and glamour of their queenly roles and try to best one another for most horrid experiences with the philandering and lusty Henry XIII. It’s a pleasure, in fact, to watch these divas wield their microphones — carried in hip holsters — like swords; their lyrics can sometimes sting, their bitter rivalries can cut, and the sarcasm, it can slice. But along the way, these women, rivals, all have one thing in common as members of the most infamous ex-wives club in history.
Catherine of Aragon, the first wife in this six-wives club, was virtuous and religious. Khaila Wilcoxon channels Queen Beyoncé asserting that her philandering husband wants to move a side chick into the palace. Her rendition of “No Way” sets her up as a queen of queens, not taking no for an answer — while also giving a nod to Beyoncé’s own marital mistrusts. Anne Boleyn, lady in waiting to Catherine, horned in and became wife number two. Storm Lever gives her an airhead-y persona. On our first glimpse, she’s taking a selfie and knows she’s hot but keeps reminding her sisters-in-queendom that she lost her head in playfully kittenish “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” But her untimely death makes her a most memorable wife.
Next up, Jane Seymour claimed she was the only one Henry “truly loved,” but, alas, died after giving birth. In her soulful solo, “Heart of Stone,” lights dim and the stage empties as Jasmine Forsberg pours out her feelings of love and betrayal à la Adele, with grace and fortitude. Number four, Anna (her German moniker) of Cleves, is introduced by a synth-pop club number narrating her connection to the “Haus of Holbein” — the painter Hans Holbein, that is. In an electronic dance number, the Queens don fluorescent glasses and neck ruffs, appropriate heavy German accents, and suggest pseudo-S&M moves for an ironically illicit number.
Olivia Donalson’s Anna finds her Rhianna-sexy, thrusting her pelvis and relishing her big reveal — a strip down to a jeweled bodysuit — along with her refrain, “I’m the queen of the castle.” Donalson, too, relishes her pop queendom, taking up space and a bit of bump and grind punctuated with a wicked smile. Go, girl. Didi Romero’s Katherine Howard is a ten and she knows it. Her Britney-esque patter takes down each queen a notch before she takes it up another with “All You Wanna Do.” The double entendre of the number — women serve as commodities to men who just want their bodies — has an extra bite when Romero, decked out in a magenta ponytail, remarks, “Things were different back then. Oh … I guess not.” The final — and surviving — wife, Catherine Parr, sung by Gabriela Carrillo, represents the soulful R&B style of Alicia Keyes, and maybe a tad of Whitney Houston, on “I Don’t Need Your Love” with R&B and bluesy flair.
Six, which clocks in at a tight 90 minutes, is a high-intensity evening and, as even the Tony Awards nomination committee had to note, there is no ensemble; each of these stellar actresses is a leading lady in her own right, holding that center stage spotlight. The production, too, stands out for lighting, staging, set and costume design, and hyper-amplified sound design by Paul Gatehouse. Emma Bailey’s scenic design featuring a stepped stage and fluorescent tubes of colors that pulse and frame the band and performers works in tandem with Tom Deiling’s rock/pop concert lighting with vivid hues of gold, blue, and red, accentuating the performers. The to-die-for glamorous costumes by Gabriella Slade suggest armor in the solidly built bustiers, miniskirts, puffed sleeves, and skin-tight fits. Slade covered these six sexy wives in light-catching rhinestones, glitter-studded fishnet stockings, and chunky-heeled boots that emitted a “don’t f@#$% with me” quality that popstars exude.
While Six is not a perfect musical, it is perfectly fun and entertaining, with its fourth-wall-breaking disregard for what old-school musicals expect. The pop/rock ethos will give you a headrush and leave you smiling and clapping to the beat. DC’s stop on this national tour easily equals the Broadway production I saw earlier this year. Moss and Marlow have scripted a clever, sharp-witted look at Tudor history that hits all the right notes for #MeToo relevance and Girl Power inspiration (bring your daughters and your sons). Six takes the boring out of British history, in a pop-princess-inspired medley that brings the audience to its feet.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Six plays through September 4, 2022, at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($60–$155) are available at the box office, online through Ticketmaster, or by calling (202) 628-6161.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances. Bags and purses are inspected at the door. The National Theatre COVID-19 Info Center is here.