Within seconds, the audience for the high-energy faux-history lesson, Six, is whipped into a rock concert frenzy. Except for a couple of ballads, that frenzy does not let up for the show’s brief, but exhausting 80-minute running time. And you wouldn’t want it any other way.
The title, of course, refers to the half-dozen wives of the English King Henry VIII. By a quirk of musical theater synergy and a bit of suspension of disbelief, these women are all alive and exist on earth at the same time, even though – as the memory device rhyme has it – they were dispatched from the throne by being “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” And since they find themselves together, breathing the same New York air at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, they decide to compete to determine which of them had it worst from the hard-to-please monarch. If their belting braggadocio brings to mind an episode of British Idol, that is hardly a coincidence.
Broadway is on its way back from an 18-month COVID pause, and no show was hit as hard as Six. It was initially scheduled to open on March 12, 2020, but just hours before the musical’s debut, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all Broadway shows shuttered. It eventually opened in October 2021 to critical and popular acclaim and has been a hot ticket ever since. Last week, at the performance I attended, not only was the theater packed, but the audience greeted Six with a welcoming ovation that only a live entertainment-starved crowd could.
Don’t worry if you were not paying sufficient attention in history class to know one queen from another. Each of these six saucy lasses gets the spotlight to fill us in on her saga, then punctuates it with a defiantly anachronistic rock solo. Adrianna Hicks leads it off as Catherine of Aragon – Henry’s first and longest-wed mate – whose response to his demand of a divorce is “No Way.” But divorced she became, which is preferable to Anne Boleyn’s (Andrea Macasaet) chopping block demise, “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” Wife Three, Jane Seymour (Keri Rene Fuller), said to be Henry’s favorite for bearing him a son, earns a ballad, “Heart of Stone.”
If Brittney Mack’s Anna of Cleves has the briefest marriage, she is anything but short-changed onstage with the rollicking “Get Down.” As Katherine Howard, Samantha Pauly is aptly pugnacious in the catchy “All You Want to Do,” as if aware she will soon be getting the axe. And Catherine Parr (Keirsten Nicole Hodgens), who would outlive Henry, also outlasted any affection for him, as she expresses in “I Don’t Need Your Love.”
Songwriters Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss have a good ear for the pop genre and a facility for lyrics brimming with colleague humor, perhaps because they began sketching in Six which they were students at Cambridge University. Moss also doubles as the show’s co-director (along with Jamie Armitage), keeping a tight rein on the proceedings, while never missing an opportunity to shoot us a knowing wink.
In case you doubted that the point of Six was female empowerment, note that the musical accompaniment is provided by a four-woman band (dubbed “The Ladies in Waiting”), conducted by keyboardist Julia Schade. The same goes for the high-glam costumes by Gabriella Slade and the simple, but effective concert set design by Emma Bailey.
It would be hard to miss the debt that Six owes to Hamilton, with its contemporary rendering of history, multi-cultural cast and real-life characters knocked off their pedestals. If your previous awareness of these six women comes from PBS – as a lyric here suggests – prepare to be surprised how much fun these doomed dames can be.
SIX, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., New York. $99-$399. 212-719-4099.